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by Dean Hagen

May 13, 2018

Arizona Masters Swim Club Inc. swimmer Dean Hagen returned to swimming as a form of therapy

I’m so excited to compete at the 2018 Nationwide U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship in Indianapolis, Ind., because swimming means so much to me. The last time I swam here was the last meet of my college career in 1986 at the NCAAs as a member of the University of Arizona swim team under Dick Jochum. I even still have the T-shirt from that meet that I will wear this special weekend.

In the years after college, I became a police officer until retiring at the end of 2012 after a rewarding and fulfilling career. While I never regretted my choice of career path, it did take its toll on me. I was involved in four officer-involved shootings and, as my therapist says, "one too many" traumatic calls leaving me with what they call complex or cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder.

I started to swim a couple years prior to my retirement after not taking a stroke for almost a quarter of a century. It was almost like learning to swim all over again. I enjoyed it but was still battling the demons associated with PTSD, causing my days in the pool to be very irregular and without purpose. During one of my PTSD therapy sessions, I was asked to visualize a calm, soothing environment. The picture I put in my mind was of swimming in a pool with only the sound of rushing water over my ears and soothing bubbles passing in front of my eyes, blocking out all the stress of the outside world focusing on that black tile line below me. I kept this picture in my mind to relax during times of high anxiety or depression.

I eventually began to experience some disturbing physical symptoms associated with PTSD in 2013 and sought out a neurologist. After examining me and ruling out several diseases, he concluded that my physical ailments were from my PTSD and anxiety and recommended a prescription of "as much vigorous exercise as I could handle.”

I took his advice to heart and dedicated myself to getting back into swimming, a sport I had always loved in my youth but set aside for almost three decades as I was consumed with my career. The result is I have lost about 50 pounds and my nightmares, anxiety, and sleepless nights have decreased, along with the symptoms that sent me to the neurologist, primarily because I'm so exhausted from working out. The depression and mood swings have improved as well because of the positive endorphins released during exercise.

Don't get me wrong: I still get many days and times in a given day that are a battle because they’re triggered by something in my environment. To cope, I now go to the pool to get rid of those feelings of depression and anxiety. My therapy is being in that environment with the bubbles and rushing water and nothing else around.

I try to make each workout count because I must leave my best friend, my service dog Murphy, at home as it’s too hot in Arizona for him to sit on deck while I train. I am my own coach, as I know my body and mind better than anyone at this point in the game. I never know how I'm going to feel energy wise from one day or hour to the next, so I make up each workout as I go for the most part.

Swimming is not only therapy for me and a healthy addiction, as opposed to prior coping mechanisms I tried. Swimming has perhaps saved me.

Following my career in law enforcement, I needed to take an introspective look at who I wanted to be. I was no longer a cop but needed something to satisfy the adrenaline rush of the job as well. There is no way to compare competing at swimming with the life and death decision associated with police work, but it has helped fill the void.

I hope I can inspire others perhaps battling their own demons to do as I did and use exercise as a healthy alternative to coping with life's struggles, I have relayed my story to some friends and former co-workers with PTSD. They have also taken up swimming to improve their lives. It took me coming back full circle to realize what swimming truly means to me, and I will be following that thin black line, feeling the rush of the bubbles and water over my face, for as long as I can.


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