The Critic Who Counts - Lessons in Marathon Swimming

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

I keep coming back to this speech by Theodore Roosevelt. I have quoted it in numerous blog posts and read it to myself over and over so many times that I can mostly recite it from memory. This speech was delivered on April 23, 1910 in Paris, France and was originally titled “Citizenship in a Republic.” During this speech Roosevelt made it a point to address the cynicism in the world by saying, “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.” He continued by saying, “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities—all these are marks, not ... of superiority but of weakness.

These words continuously strike me to my core, over and over like waves crashing onto the shore.

As an athlete, we are faced with harsh criticism from parents, coaches, peers, competitors, and even ourselves. Judgement, pressure, anxiety, doubt - these are all things that athletes face and, most importantly, all things that athletes fear. Take a moment to think about who your critics are and how you are responding to them? Is it YOU? Is it your spouse or partner? Is it your coach or your peers? How is this person or these people affecting you? Let me walk you through a few of mine:

In high school, I swam for the most competitive swim team in all Chicagoland. Our coach was, at the time, cutting edge, experimental and a generally regarded as a hardass. All of my teammates were very good swimmers and, in that group, I was only slightly above average. We were yelled at, called names, punished, and threatened. We endured things back then that would likely get a coach sued nowadays. I would come home with bruises all over my body from slipping and falling on the deck while trying to do all kinds of strange dryland exercises.

One summer morning, I was struggling to make an interval in a kick set with another girl and instead of helping me with my technique, our coach lost his temper with us and started throwing pull buoys at our heads. When we could no longer make the interval, he got even more angry and threw an entire lounge chair at us, told us to get out of the pool, and sent us to the diving well. He threw two chairs at us and told us to vertical kick with the chairs above our heads until he said we could stop. We ended up kicking with the chairs for 25 minutes with out a break. Was this tough love or was this torture? Honestly, I don’t think I could tell you. He was incredibly manipulative.

Through his, at times, unethical treatment of us as teenagers, I learned how to persevere. I believe that coach embodies the critic that Theodore Roosevelt is referencing in the speech. I showed up to every single practice, took those hits and, even when he knocked me down to the lowest rung on the ladder, I still held on. I learned how to dig deep and pull myself back up, rung by rung because I was mentally in the arena. My body was bruised and beaten, but my will to succeed and prove him wrong was stronger.

To be fair, I also credit that coach for teaching me how to set goals. He was hard on us, but I learned a lot from him. In a way, his strict ways provided structure for me in a time in my life where the lack of structure could have been my downfall.

In college, my critics became my teammates and, ultimately, myself. They were really hard on me. I would say that I was generally misunderstood by the majority of them and my attitude didn’t help me either. I was cocky and selfish. I had come from a very strict and structured program back home and the freedom of college just threw me for a loop. Physically, I was ready for the collegiate training, but emotionally I was immature. I got knocked on my ass by the upperclassmen constantly for running my mouth. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but I wasn’t about to quit the team just because I didn’t get along with a few of the women. I hung tight with the senior men my freshman year and once they were gone, my protective bubble went with them. I got my ass handed to me my sophomore year.

After I tore both my shoulders and had to sit out a season and a half, I really struggled. It was one of the darkest times of my life. I was 21 years old and everything I knew to turn to for an emotional release came to a screeching halt. I was put on Zoloft for depression and I began abusing alcohol and opioids. I started smoking cigarettes and I did a lot of partying. I was reckless. I would be out all hours of the night and drunkenly bike to practice with only having 3 hours of sleep just to stand there and take splits or go do physical therapy in the training room. No wonder my teammates loathed me.

Literally, I was in pain all the time. I was drinking in the middle of the day just so I could get through the pain of sitting through class. I completely shred both of my shoulders in that race that ended my career. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t pick up my bookbag, I could hardly hold my tray of food in the cafeteria. I would have sudden shooting pains from my neck down into my hands and would completely lose feeling in my elbows and fingers. I could hardly hold a pen some days. So I turned to alcohol, opiates and nicotine. Anything I could get to numb it out or make it all go away for a few hours, I was doing it. My teammates saw it. They knew. They called me out on it and I reacted like any addict would, I lashed back out at them ten times harder. I was miserable to be around and, looking back, I don’t blame them for ostracizing me from the team. I deserved it. I was depressed and turning to substance abuse as my band aid.

My super senior season, also known as a victory lap or a 5th year was my time to make my comeback. Except the damage had already been done. I was drinking every day, taking pills, not getting enough sleep and basically giving my teammates the middle finger all while my coach was coddling me and turning a blind eye to what he knew was actually going on. He tried once to talk to me about it, but I completely blew him off. He saw my potential and I just pissed it away. By the time I finally felt like I was getting my shit together, it was too late. I barely qualified for conference and bombed my final races. I regret that most of all. I wish that I knew more about addiction back then so that I could have saved myself from that massive disappointment.

I couldn’t get out of my own way. As many times as I was knocked down by my team, I was knocking myself down twice as hard. I was grasping to come up for air in a sea of my own depression. I give myself credit for showing up. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, even when intoxicated or high. I still had something inside me that kept me fighting; I still had something inside me that kept me in the arena. Those years in high school of being beaten down and still rising back up really did a number on my resiliency. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to train drunk and high all the time. The thought of it scares me – but to be honest, I really don’t remember much of it…because I was drunk and high.

I took a 6, almost 7 year break from the sport and travelled the world. I used my resiliency and love of partying and sweet talking to climb the corporate ladder and was very successful at my job in luxury sales. In 2015 I was in a horrible car accident and broke my neck and my back. At my lowest point in the end of 2016, I turned back to swimming to help pull me out of the darkness. It was then that I discovered marathon swimming. My passion and love of the sport came flooding back and I took all the lessons and the tools from my past to build a new future in swimming for myself - and I did. I travelled to Amsterdam and swam the canals and completed the 21.3 mile length of Lake Tahoe. I moved around a bit and started coaching swimming and water polo again. I was starting to point in the right direction.

Fast forward to 2020. I had big plans for this year. I started working with Zumo to produce all of my suits, was accepted to Team Infinit Performance for all my nutrition, I set a course record for a 10K in San Francisco Bay and I had the Catalina Channel lined up. Then the Catalina Channel was cancelled so I did what everyone did early on in the pandemic, I pivoted and planned to swim Monterey Bay instead. I put in massive amounts of training for this swim but in the final 4 weeks leading up to the swim I was stung by a stingray, then the wound got infected. A week before my swim I tore my ACL from getting crashed by a wave. My car literally broke down in Bakersfield, California on my way to Monterey and, finally, I ended up cancelling my Monterey Bay swim 36 hours before my start time due to my knee injury.

I’ve moved four times in the past 12 months, two of which were from coast to coast. With the help and encouragement of two very special friends, I finally came to terms with the fact that I’m an alcoholic and have been sober since September 17, 2020. And now we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, I’ve just had aggressive ACL reconstruction surgery and I packed up my life and moved back to Florida from California. To say that I have been battling in the arena this year, is an understatement. I’ve been beaten, battered, bruised, cut open, and struck down from all sides physically and emotionally. Yet, I continue to get back up.

I started swimming again last week at home here in Florida. I’m staying with my family for the Holidays while I heal from surgery and until COVID dies down a bit. Today, as I type this, I am 75 days sober. I’ve connected with an amazing therapist and I’m processing everything in a healthy and clear manner.

I’ll be honest, it hasn't been pretty and I have had to ask for a lot of help, but the point is that I STOOD BACK UP. I wasn’t all on my own every time, even though I felt like I was sometimes. I finally allowed myself to rely on my friends and I accepted help. I recognize now that I am a stronger, better person living a sober life - but that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my past. If you remember nothing from this blog, remember this: No matter what is happening in your life or how low you get, hold on to that bottom rung of the ladder with all your might because just below you are people who will help lift you up just one more rung.

If I allowed my critics, my coach, my teammates, my self destruction, or my addiction to dictate to me when it’s time to give up, I would never be able to say that I am a marathon swimmer. My story is chock full of obstacles, all of which I could have easily said, THAT'S IT and gave up, but I didn’t. I kept on going and you should too. To dare greatly isn’t about being the most successful all the time, it is about having the courage to stand in the arena, face your demons, wag your finger in their cold, dark face with a glimmer in your eye and say, “I will not quit today.”

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