By Bess Auer
We are a swim family.
My husband swam at the University of Florida, he coaches swimming, and we run Florida Swim Network together. My son has swum competitively since second grade, and all that time he has had a goal to swim in college (preferably for the Gators). So singular was his mission that when we asked him about going out with this friends to try other sports in middle school, he would not even consider it. He would say, “I can’t; I have swim practice.”
As the years progressed, he seemed to be on track for his collegiate swimming dream. He frequented the All Star Meet, which features the best age groupers in the state, and he even won the 50 Free in his last year there. As a high schooler, he often attended Junior Nationals and finaled at states in his events every year of his high school career. (No easy feat seeing as he competed in Class 1A against swimmers from the likes of Bolles, Pine Crest, Saint Andrews, etc.) So when the college recruiting letters started arriving, and later the emails and phone calls, and then finally the trips to visit with teams and coaches, his dream seemed to be coming true.
That’s why it seemed so unthinkable when my son recently announced he didn’t think he wanted to swim in college.
Stage 1: The Denial
Surely he was just upset from having an off high school season his senior year. (Yes, he finaled but he had failed to land a spot on the podium.) Or perhaps he was depressed because he hadn’t dropped major time in a while. Maybe he just needed a change of atmosphere… a new team and a new set of coaches in college would surely cure this! We spent several days simply denying the fact that he might be serious about not swimming. Wouldn’t he miss it?
“I’ll miss seeing my friends,” he told us, “but I won’t miss the long, hard practices.”
Stage 2: The Bargaining
Over the next few weeks his dad and I tried to convince him how incredible it is to be part of a team in college. His club coach talked to him – the friendships, the travel, the training table, the preferred scheduling, etc. If he could just stick with it these last few months of high school, he’d have a whole new take on swimming!
“Even with those advantages of being a student athlete,” he told us, “I just don’t think I want to do it.”
Stage 3: The Loss of Identity
We are a swim family, right? My son is a swimmer, right? (Okay, he’s a lot more than that, obviously, but it seemed so innately tied to his personality for the last 10 years that it was hard for his dad and me to separate him from being a swimmer.) What would he do if he wasn’t swimming? He would have so much time after school; how would he fill that void? Over the coming the weeks I progressed from having a son that went to school, practice, home, and sleep on a very regular basis, to having a son whose routine was suddenly unpredictable. Everything in my life was thrown into chaos. After school now he might go to his girlfriend’s house, go to the mall, go work out with his nonswimming buddies… I felt lost with his new-found freedom!
“I think I kind of like this,” he told his dad and me.
Stage 4: The Blame
Surely there was some reason my son wanted to quit swimming. Was it his high school coach? Was it his girlfriend? Was he smoking pot? (Okay, we didn’t really think he was smoking pot, but we were reaching for just about anything to explain this change in behavior.) Or maybe he just didn’t feel he could cut it swimming at the University of Florida – it is famous for being a truly tough swim program. But the coaches had said as long as he worked hard, they’d love to have him.. so what could it be?
“I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about it,” he told us. “I’ve never had a spring break before. I want to be able to spend time with friends and go out at night. If I’ve got two-a-days, dryland, weights, and classes, I’ll miss out on a lot of other stuff.”
Stage 5: The Adjustment
It took me a few weeks to even be able to utter the words, “He doesn’t know if he wants to swim in college,” when people would ask about my son and school. I barely got the words out the first time, but it did get easier the more times I said it. At meets I’d tell other college-bound swimmers he was considering not swimming. Surprisingly, each one would nod agreeing that it was a huge decision. (Gasp! Could they be considering the very same thing?) At the SEC Conference Championships, freshmen swimmers would tell us they could see where our son was coming from, and that he was smart to weigh the decision carefully. Even a few college grads seemed to confirm that our son might not be insane after all. They commented that unless he was on track for the Olympics, it sure was an awful lot of time to spend at the pool instead of experiencing the rest of college life.
“See?” our son told us. “There are a lot of things I want to do in college. I’ll be okay without swimming.”
Stage 6: The Acceptance
We are a
swim family who happens to have a lot of swimming in it, but it no longer defines us. This has been quite a realization for my husband and me. In fact, there’s a lot of research about what happens to athletes after they retire – surprisingly my son did not go through any of the stages listed. My husband and I were the ones to go through all the drama and loss of identity. Like he does most things in life, our son flawlessly made the transition from a student-athlete to a student who likes athletics.
Finding our peace with this transition was not easy, but I am now in a place where I look back on my son’s swim career with pride. And best yet, I am not only comfortable with his decision not to swim, but impressed that he knew what was right for him all along. As a family, we are excited about what his future holds in store!
My son is still involved with the sport. He wants to help us with Florida Swim Network, and he serves on the Disability Committee for USA Swimming. He is even considering getting involved with disability advocacy at UF, so he does indeed seem to have a plan for the next few years of his life. Who knew he had really thought things through?
So, parents, if your son or daughter comes to you to say they don’t want to swim anymore, be prepared for a roller coaster of emotions and major adjustment on your part, but also be prepared to hear them out. They just might know what they’re talking about.
“I told you so,” my son keeps telling me.