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Biography / Human Interest

Swimming Through the Unemployment Ranks

Swimming keeps spirits and health afloat in tough times

Bill Miller | December 31, 2009

“It could never happen to me,” are the famous last words of many who have lost their jobs as the economy has taken a turn for the worse over the last 18 months. Layoffs, downsizing, right-sizing ... yadda, yadda, yadda; these terms are all too common in many of our neighborhoods. Unemployment can be scary, saddening and maddening. So, how do some Masters swimmers deal with the uncertainty of unemployment? They swim. Bill Miller of SwimMAC Masters in Charlotte, North Carolina shares, in his own words, his story of swimming through the unemployment ranks.

Twenty-nine years with the same company, eleven different assignments, seven promotions, eight relocations, special projects and acquisitions activity. But in November 2008 I found myself victim of an economy and a company that no longer required my services. There are many of us out there in similar situations but I have advantage over most. It’s called swimming; the competition, the discipline and the friends developed from the sport.

I was an age group swimmer, really never highly competitive but enjoyed the competition, exercise and most importantly the relationships developed with fellow swimmers. I swam a few years in college but was far from what I consider a Division I athlete. Like many, I was burned out and never thought again about staring at the bottom of a pool for hours on end.

Many years passed since that last workout and for some reason I decided to swim again beginning in 2003 – probably something to do with that immortality thing most middle aged men begin to think about. “Feeling bad and looking even worse.” So, I began the process, staring at the bottom of a pool but found I could barely swim 500 meters. Some interesting statistics: It was a year before I began flip turns; 2 months before I could swim a mile; 7 months before I got up the nerve to wear a Speedo; and a year and a half before entering my first competitive event, The Chesapeake Bay Swim.

I traveled frequently for my prior company, including internationally, which often presented challenges finding a pool and/or masters club. I think I have swum in about every type of pool; salt water pools, pools where the shallow end is so shallow my hands touched the bottom; pools that are so cold that I never want to swim in them again, pools so hot (because of some special water aerobics course) I thought I would die of heat exhaustion, and pools where lane etiquette reminded me of Roman legends preparing for battle. And frequent travelers are always challenged to get a healthy workout in a small hotel pool. Take it from me – it is possible.

Almost six years after I started swimming again I found myself unemployed for the first time in my life. The economy was terrible and most hiring managers were junior in experience. For those in a similar situation, you know the feeling. The emotions and stress can be incredible. Call it swimming through mid-life crisis or unemployment, but swimming was the one thing in my control and nobody could take that away. The sport has allowed me to get up regularly at 4:38 a.m. for an early morning workout along with 50 plus other foolish master swimmers, clear my mind and prepare for the day ahead. The ability to finish a hard set of 100s provides a level of accomplishment that helps carry me through the day, because there will be no projects to complete, or order to write, or manager to satisfy. It doesn’t exist. In my opinion, you need to have at least one “win” every day. This may require some searching and effort on your part. It may be dragging yourself to the pool when you really don’t want to go. But it is amazing; there are never any regrets after going.

Swimming for me was never just about competing. Swimming offered an environment of clear and logical thinking. The monotonous laps offered the opportunity to clear my thoughts about my daily activities and priorities and were a great problem-solving tool. Many corporate decisions, ideas and plans were developed during the course of a good workout.

Swimming must be analogous to runner’s high where your brain and muscles are working harmoniously. I know a lot of swimmers reach this state; for me it is reached swimming long distances of 2000 meters or greater where I get in a groove and my breathing feels very natural. My senses seem to be elevated as both my mind and body are stimulated. I once read that when the body is placed under stress, the brain produces endorphins - a group of opiate proteins with pain relieving properties. I’m not certain if it is tiny little proteins or some other experience or the surrounding environment – it really doesn’t matter to me.

Seeking employment these days is a challenge and a balance of using web sites, professional groups and good old networking. There are days when the phone doesn’t ring or the person that said they would call did not. Or, when you receive the dreaded automatic email response that reads, “After carefully reviewing your qualifications and background, we find that we are unable to offer you a position at this time. This is not a reflection on your background or interest but due to specific requirements we currently have. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider you for a position with our company. We wish you the best of luck in your job search.” It is on these days that swimming is most important. Sometimes just the social environment at the pool or someone asking sincerely about your job search becomes additional motivation and support.

I am convinced my attitude is more positive on the days I swim. On those non-swimming days I feel a little fatigued and sometimes have a sense of non-accomplishment. On days I have an important interview I always try to swim. It prepares me mentally for the task before me and provides me with focus.

A colleague of mine who also fell victim to the economy and the unemployment ranks asked me if I could sleep at night. He was having some significant issues with depression and fatigue. My response, “I get up before 5:00 a.m. I’m so tired by 9:30 p.m. I can’t wait to go to bed.” What’s my point? Swimming reduces my stress level and prepares me for a good night sleep and for a new day.

Without my regimented workouts and the camaraderie of my team, there would be little escape on some days. World-class swimmers are thinking about their every stroke and turn to maximize efficiency. For me, every stroke and turn allows me to think freely about anything.

Of course swimming alone will not create a job or develop an entirely new healthy attitude, but it can help prepare one for the opportunity. I’m lucky – I have a supportive spouse (Linda), family, my faith and swimming. With that said, I am absolutely convinced my next great career opportunity is on the horizon and swimming will continue to provide the discipline, competitive demeanor and the team environment that will carry over in my professional endeavors.

Bill is not alone. Many of our members have and continue to struggle in the current economic state. Some families are making financial cuts, penny pinching and eliminating the unnecessary “extras” in life. For Masters swimmers health, fitness and swimming are not unnecessary extras. In fact, swimming, as Bill has discovered, can keep us moving forward with our chins held high through the unemployment ranks or other struggles we may face.

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