February, 2016. I am jumping up and down and swinging my arms behind the starting blocks, preparing to swim my last collegiate championship race ever: 200 Breaststroke. In my head I’m saying, “Let’s go, Maddy. Give it everything you’ve got. This one’s for you. This is the last time you will ever swim as fast as you can!” I was ready. I was ready to give everything I had to that race, and I was ready to never swim fast again. Sure, I loved swimming. After all, I stuck with it for 13 years. But I was also tired and ready to move on. I was 22. My swimming ability had peaked…right?
After that race, however, I had to continue swimming because I found a new sport: triathlon. I didn’t have a clear idea of what my triathlon ambitions were beyond getting faster and having some athletic purpose outside the pool. That was the key. Outside the pool. I was going to get faster at triathlon without swimming. I would only swim enough to maintain my ability. I told myself there wasn’t any use working hard in the pool because my swimming had peaked. So I went through the next triathlon season in swimming retirement. Sure, I still swam, going for longer open water swims than ever before. Sometimes I even gave myself hard(er) workouts in the pool, but I never pushed myself to my limit. If I didn’t feel like it, I scratched the intended hard set and swam easy. The self-imposed freedom to relax on the swim was a satisfying respite after years of challenging workouts. I traded my intense swim training of the past for more running and cycling. I even modified my race strategy to fit my new style. During the swim, I would “just get through it,” saving my energy for the bike and run. That’s when my real racing and enjoyment would start. My triathlon still improved that season. My swim was “good enough,” and I succeeded through my growth in the other two disciplines.
I wasn’t alone in my approach to swimming for triathlon. Swimming is the most commonly despised discipline among triathletes. Many triathletes under-train the swim, doing the bare minimum to accomplish the required race distance. But most triathletes who hate swimming are beginners at it. Drowning is a real worry. Learning complex swimming technique as an adult is unnatural. I, on the other hand, had 13 years of experience under my belt and STILL hated the swim! I had the same fears as the beginners…okay not the drowning part…but I was not a distance freestyler in college. I swam breaststroke and trained with the sprint group at practice. My races never lasted longer than 2.5min. My competitors were separated by lane lines. So while I didn’t fear my ability to COMPLETE the one-mile open water swim, I strongly doubted that I could swim fast or enjoy it in any way.
One year later from “retiring,” in February 2017, my routine was becoming unsustainable. I went to the pool twice a week tops, swimming about 3k each time of whatever I felt like doing that day–a far cry from my daily 6K high-intensity workouts in college. I was struggling with motivation for my upcoming triathlon season. I loved to compete and train, but my goals were vague. I missed the camaraderie of my college team and doubted my ability to improve. Then, through a mutual friend, I was connected with the career opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to work with Siri Lindley, one of the best triathlon coaches in the world. I was absolutely thrilled. If there was any way to understand my passion for the sport, define my goals, and improve, it was through working with Siri. So I blindly seized the opportunity. My natural competitive fire reignited and dreams of greatness flew through my mind once again.
But in my first weeks of training with Siri, a great physical and mental challenge hit me with the full force of a tidal wave: the swimming workouts were BACK! I was assigned swims at least 5 times per week with intervals I hadn’t attempted for years, distance swims farther than I had ever gone before, and speed sets that demanded nothing less than 100% FREAKING FAST! My stomach dropped as I realized that not only was swimming back, it was here to stay! If I really wanted to see how far I could go in triathlon, I wasn’t just committing to a few more months of swimming. I was committing to YEARS!
It came down to one big question . . . What did I love more: triathlon or retirement? When I answered with my heart, triathlon was the answer. I was sure I wanted this path. So I knew I had to learn to love swimming again. I had to believe in my ability to improve at it again. Knowing this, I tried for a moment to will myself to believe and love, but tremendous self doubt overpowered me. The task seemed unattainable. Still, I would try!
First and foremost, I had to stop believing my swimming had peaked. I diligently embraced technique changes designed specifically to swim fast in triathlon. I gained knowledge about open water swimming, learning to breathe and navigate efficiently. Then I had to welcome the pain of swimming workouts back into my life! I worked to turn the pool into a “no judgement” zone. I had to learn to give my everything every day, even when my body ached and begged me to stop. Though my changed techniques and mental strategies were still new, I now had to test them in open water! When I went to Boulder in August to train with Siri and my teammates, I had never done a hard open water swim workout before. Interspersed throughout the other components of the workout were surprise HARD effort laps around the entire marked swim course. At the announcement of each one, I was terrified! I thought, “Another one!? How can I do it? I gave everything I had left to the previous lap!” But each time my strategies helped me find something more. I willed myself to stay calm in the moment and just swim as hard as I could in the “no judgement” zone. The achievement felt amazing! My new swimming mentality was starting to shine through!
By the World Championship in September, my confidence was rising, but the swim still gave me nerves! My start field had 75 women, the best in the world in their age and all racing for a world title! It was going to be cut-throat competitive! My nerves urged me to default to my past habits. “This is too scary! Just get through the swim! Play it safe, then enjoy the rest of the race!” But I caught myself. I wanted to step up to racing professionally soon. Every race from now on would be cut-throat competitive. There was no hiding! Yes, it was scary, but isn’t this why I loved triathlon? For the incredible challenge of pushing myself to become more? My heart was in it for the right reasons, telling my mind to face the fear, take the risk, and give this swim everything!
When the gun went off, I sprinted as fast as I could! I was totally in the moment! I had the course visualized in my head, ready to sight every buoy, and nail every turn. All was going well until a swimmer came right up behind me and we collided as I was pulled sideways into her draft. The contact distracted me. This was my space! She was messing up my sightline! I felt my chest tighten and my arms and legs burn with heightened anxiety. “Oh no,” I thought. “I’m failing!” Then something switched. I remembered swimming side by side with my teammates in Boulder. I remembered finding more on those hard laps when I didn’t think I had anything left. With this memory, I began to swim WITH my competitor, not against her. I imagined she was my teammate on a hard training swim. We were both just trying to do our best today. I felt myself relax again. I resumed my rhythmic breathing and efficient stroke. I was back in the race and loving it! I was crushing my open water fear!
I learned an invaluable lesson in 2017: to never again tell myself I can’t improve. But that season was just the start, and I’m back to the grind of training now, pushing my swimming farther. Each day is still an incredible physical and mental challenge. My self doubt sometimes begs me to give in. But now, I don’t dread this challenge, I welcome it! I battle the self doubt again and again with an even stronger fire of belief in myself and the future. I relentlessly give every swim my best. Sometimes my best still results in missed intervals, but other days I see faster times than ever before. Regardless, the more swimming challenges me, the more I grow as an athlete. I don’t swim now because it’s required for triathlon. I swim because through swimming, I continue to discover my strength. I swim now because I love it!