I love the Olympics. There is nothing purer than the look of sheer joy on the athletes’ faces when they win a medal or achieve their personal best. I actually lost my voice cheering as Michael Phelps was fighting to regain his title in the 200 fly then teared up with him as our national anthem played.
Watching him race every four years makes me reflect on my swimming career that ended prematurely. Feeling nostalgic, I dug out this short story that I wrote in college many years ago. It is from the perspective of twenty one year old me who was just making sense of loss and pain. The wiser adult me hopes it inspires you to take on the next challenge because there is something greater coming that you cannot yet imagine.
“I Have Known Pain”
Written by Cyndi Schmidt now Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP
I have known pain. The pain that comes from something physical but causes mental pain as well. Which is worse? Undoubtedly the mental pain. I can deal with physical pain. There are medications and therapies to ease it, but there is nothing to ease the anguish that goes on in one’s mind.
To someone who does not know, it is hard to explain the total addiction, lust, and love that one can have for a sport. For me, my drug, lover, and companion was swimming. I say “was” because it was taken away fro me. To this day, I still torture myself with asking “Why?” Was it because I tried too hard? Is that why the muscles and bones in my shoulders feel like they have been through a meat grinder? Why I can no longer pick up a gallon of milk? Why I have to rest when unloading clothes from the dryer because it hurts too much? Why when I drive I sometimes have to pull off the road because my arms have gone into spasms? Why did this happen to me? Why was my passion killed by pain?
I began swimming as soon as I could walk. As soon as I was old enough to compete, I did. All I thought about was swimming. I loved it and lived for it. When I was in intense competition one year, my father gave me something. At least I think he did.
I found the small magazine clipping taped to my bathroom mirror one night after a three-hour practice. Its message stared back at me in plain black and white.
“She is one of many amateur athletes who dedicate themselves not just to winning, for that is a short term goal. But to the challenge of competition which propels them to be the best they can be. Today, tomorrow, for a lifetime.” Yes, that was me. I did not just want to win. It was something that was in me and I just had to do.
My passion was extinguished at a point when it burned the strongest. It was in my freshman year of college when I was swimming for the university’s team. We were at the division championships—the meet we had been preparing for the entire season. I had been practicing harder than ever before. After each practice, it was an effort just to get out of the pool because I had given everything to the workout.
Once I was in the hot shower, my fingers and toes ached because I had exerted so much effort. But it felt great. I knew I had pushed it to the limit. When we lifted weights, and Coach Mike added another ten pounds, I welcomed the challenge. The burn in my muscles was my reward. Performing better than I ever had was my goal.
The time for the division championships had arrived. The night before my “big event” the 200 free, I could barely sleep. It was not because of excitement, but because of the throbbing pain in my shoulders. No matter how I lay, every position made my arms ache. But I did not tell anyone, not even my coach. I figured that if I did not talk about it, then the pain would go away because I had not acknowledged it.
The pain did not go away as I hoped and prayed. It stayed with me though warm-ups, our pre-meet cheers, and through the stretches before my event. I wanted to perform so well I could taste it. I thought if I could just trick my mind into believing that I could do it, I would. My body had given up on me, but I did not let that stop me from trying. But no matter what I did, I could not block out the pain.
I had only positive thoughts in my mind as I stepped up to the block and awaited the starter’s commands. After the gun went off, I hit the relentless water and swam as hard as my body would allow me. My arms felt like useless pieces of rubber. I could not propel myself fast enough. I wound up finishing last in the heat. I did not even qualify for finals as I should have effortlessly done.
He realized and so did I. It was over for me. Coach said to me as he had a hundred times before “Go take a hot shower and loosen up.” He knew it would not do anything as did I, but at least he left me with some dignity. I held my head high and squared my useless shoulders as best I could as I walked into the locker room. Once I was alone in the cold, metal stall I started sobbing. I only knew I was crying because I heard the hollow sound and realized that it was me. It hit me that all I had hoped for and dreamed about was over for me in swimming and there was nothing I cold do about it
I had been doing physical therapy for a year since the time my body gave out on me at the end of the season. I even underwent a painful shoulder surgery to try to regain my ability to swim. Nothing worked and I knew that I would never again be able to compete as I had before.
Only after three years am I beginning to be able to accept that. I did not want to and never planned on having to deal with something like this. After college and maybe even the Olympics, I wanted to continue to compete at the Masters level, open competition for anyone over the age of eighteen.
Swimming was my life. People knew me as “Cyndi. You know, the swimmer.” I have been struggling for quite some time to achieve a new identity and to fill the void in my life. I can say that I have slowly been able to do that with all the free time that I have now that I am not swimming. Now when my fingers cramp up, I try not to ask “why?” Now I try to believe that the pain is there because I was so passionate about something that mattered to me.
I have known pain. It comes in all forms. It can take over your body and your mind. Although we cannot prevent physical pain from occurring, we can decide how we let the mental pain shape us. Accept the pain, feel it, live it, and then, move on. If you don’t, the physical side will take over the mental pain. And that is what hurts the most.
Cyndi Turner, LCSW LSATP is the Co-founder of Insight Into Action Therapy and the author of Can I Keep Drinking? How You Can Decide When Enough is Enough available for preorder September 2016.