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Under Water, Going Mad

May 16, 2014  - Casey Barrett

I was somewhere around my 400th consecutive lap of the morning, nearing the end of a 12,000 for time, and I was all the way around the bend. As a Brit might say, I was quite mad. Which isn’t to say angry, though I was that too. But mostly, I was insane. Madness had swallowed me up on that long ago Friday morning. There wasn’t a sane, rational thought left in my chlorine-soaked mind. As soon as I touched the wall, I started ranting, throwing my mesh bag, shouting at lane-mates who had surely skipped laps.

Not my finest hour.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Chances are, if you spent your years between age 10 and 20 as a Swimmer (the “S” must be capitalized), you can relate to these madman emotions. Chances are, you’ve swum out to your tether of sanity. It’s a point of pride. For all of us.

Yet, this is also why the Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a less-than-inspiring column entitled: Swimming: the worst job in the sporting world. Ouch. Really? And this a missive from Down Under, where swimming is damn near a religion? How dare they. Haven’t they heard about USA Swimming’s “Funnest Sport” campaign? As someone who has spent the better part of his career celebrating, ok, selling, the virtues of swimming at all levels, I took immediate offense. Then I clicked on the story.

Ok, the guy has a point. When viewed in a certain dark light, a case can be made that swimming is a breeding ground for mental illness. I don’t mean learning to swim, or splashing around in the summer, or even swimming a few K a couple times a week as a grown-up. I mean, really swimming, like swimmers do. Swimming twice a day, most every day, for a decade or more. I mean, spending over a quarter of your waking life with your face underwater throughout your most impressionable years. To quote this Aussie columnist, Sam de Brito, “if there is a sport tailor-made for producing sociopaths and depressives, it has got to be swimming.”

Well, that’s a little harsh, isn’t it? I’m neither a sociopath nor depressed, and I spent as many hours as anyone at that masochistic craft for a very long time. Most of us made it out sane, didn’t we? At least we’d like to believe we did.

Yet many don’t. The maladjusted champion swimmer is a bit of a hot topic down in Oz these days. Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett in rehab after hitting the bottle and the pills too hard; Geoff Huegill getting caught doing coke at the horse races; Scottie Miller doing hard time for dealing… The list goes on. Safe to say the Aussies might want to take a closer look at their Career Transitions outreach for departing members of the National Team.

Let’s not pretend it’s limited to this unfortunate rash of Aussie champs. The column calls out the “emotional maturity of a Teletubbie” with regards to many 20-something swimmers. We all hate to admit the mean accuracy of that statement, but be honest, there’s more than a grain of truth there. There’s also an inconvenient truth to this cold passage:

“the inherent, egocentric-sole-competitor nature of swimming coaching goes to work, cementing in the swimmer what will become the defining disorder of their competitive life, that they are central to the universe, their story is the only story that matters, yet they are also separate from the universe, there is only them and all those other people. These “built-in confusions” tend to get belted out of normal people pretty early in life, but swimmers often don’t see evidence to the contrary until they are ready to retire.” 

If that hurts to read, it’s probably because it hits rather close to your pool.