How to Find Joy in Racing If You’re Struggling
Swimmers go through slumps—four Masters members share how they deal with their struggles
After two years of no racing because of the pandemic, I craved the adrenaline rush of diving off the blocks, hearing cheers and whistles, and viewing the scoreboard out of breath and high from exertion, but I paused before entering a meet.
Why? Because I wasn’t fast.
USMS Top 10s or wins would be a longshot with interrupted training because of pool closures and my recent penchant for swimming in the sea. But in the end, my desire to race prevailed, and I competed in a two-day meet in Phoenix last November.
At that meet I learned that other USMS members were having similar experiences. Lynette Washburn, Judy Gillies, James D’Amour, and Chris Frederic faced pool closures, injuries, and health situations. All are drawn to the water and, despite their worries about slowing down, they’ve decided to dive back into competition.
Arizona Masters Swim Club member Lynette Washburn was an All-American in high school, swam in college, and then took a 10-year break before joining U.S. Masters Swimming. Initially she swam times close to what she did in college, which thrilled her.
But when menopause struck, Washburn gained weight and says she “began to lose focus and motivation.” She lost interest in swimming and racing.
“I thought, ‘What’s the point? I keep getting slower,’” she says.
When a challenge such as this arises, finding a fresh way to stay motivated can keep a swimmer getting back in the water. Washburn found that fresh approach when she joined a small triathlete group after moving to Arizona in 2013, something that rekindled her passion for competing. She dropped her menopause pounds and swam times in November faster than she had swum in recent decades.
“Participating in meets is fun and rewarding,” Washburn says. “I set goals for each decade. I try not to compare myself to my 16-year-old self but to my 58-year-old self.”
Setting realistic goals is key to keeping your enthusiasm high, especially if you’re a competitive swimmer. Not reaching goals that are out of reach can diminish your desire to compete or even swim.
She recommends that other swimmers plan their goals and have fun in pursuit of them. Remembering how much joy you receive from being in the water can help keep thoughts of getting slower from stealing away that joy and enthusiasm for training and racing.
North Carolina Masters Swimming member Chris Frederic has faced many difficulties over the past several years. The pandemic closed her pool for three months, she needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her knee, and she dealt with anemia.
Injuries and health issues can make many aging athletes consider dropping out of competitions. But after proper rehabilitation and medical care, many swimmers can get back to hitting times close to what they achieved before.
Frederic competed in two meets in 2021, including the USMS Short Course Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina. She wasn’t in great shape, but she went because she thought other swimmers in her age group might not be either, making it an equal race.
Frederic, 57, ended up winning the 100 butterfly.
“Some of my times were close to my slowest as a Masters swimmer,” she says. “It was frustrating. But being able to race—and catch people—helped my psyche and motivated me to push harder.”
Although she’s a hardcore competitor, Frederic was able to set realistic goals that made the experience more enjoyable than it could’ve been and found something to be joyful about in her accomplishments rather than just focusing on her times.
After dealing with a recent biceps tendon injury, Frederic says she doubts whether she had the mental toughness to push herself as hard as she did before, something she described as a scary feeling. But she’s faced—and beaten—injuries before.
The key, she says, is being positive and remembering that she and others have dealt with and gotten through the same thing before.
“I had this same conversation with myself in 2009 and then again in 2015 [during prior injuries],” Frederic says. “I was able to swim fast again. Maybe I can improve my technique and be even faster.”
Swimming provides many physical benefits but also mental health benefits. Michigan Masters member James D’Amour knows this very well.
“I swim for my sanity,” he says. “A few days out of the water, and I am blue beyond measure. The first months of COVID weren’t pleasant.”
He tried running when pools closed, but this caused him more pain than emotional release. Once the frigid winter ended in 2020, D’Amour, 60, took to nearby lakes with a pod of trusted friends, which lifted his spirits. They continued this open water swimming last year and are likely to do so again once the weather warms back up.
D’Amour races against his personal best times, though he doesn’t always beat them. He doesn’t have post-race letdown because he savors every experience. Swimming, he says, is “a way of life.” Competition is a part of his swimming lifestyle.
It’s a lifestyle that improves his focus and mood and reduces his anxiety, just a few of the many benefits D’Amour receives when he swims.
Judy Gillies focuses on two things as a Masters swimmer: swimming and volunteering.
She enjoys racing in interesting places around the world, having competed in at least one Nationals every year for nearly 40 years and many FINA World Masters Championships.
The Arizona Masters Swim Club member also gives back to her community by officiating at countless meets. She’s the Arizona LMSC officials chair and serves on the Officials and Rules Committees. Her volunteer work keeps her fire burning for her sport.
Age-related slowing, an autoimmune disease, and COVID-19 closures have affected Gillies’s speed. Pain and exhaustion halted the 74-year-old’s swimming routine. “I was running into the lane line and had no strength,” she says. “I would go in the locker room, sit on the bench, and just cry.” Gillies barely had the energy to fix meals.
After diagnosing her with polymyalgia rheumatica, a rheumatologist put her on medication, and she eventually regained her energy and swimming stamina. Despite the challenges she’s faced, she races with gusto.
“I look forward to competing,” Gillies says. “Competition keeps me pushing harder.”
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