There’s Something In the Water

(Craig Campbell)– This past weekend the Men’s Varsity Swim Team just fell short of Williams in the competition to claim the title of NESCAC Championship Team. I didn’t watch the meet, but I nevertheless closely followed results online. I found myself placing my times from championship season last year in the results – which is always an unhealthy and erroneous thing to do. If I had stayed on the team, this weekend would have marked the end of my individual season.

I quit the AMST in early December. I decided to opt out of the recruiting process for all the schools to which I applied; I didn’t want to feel like I owed any coach anything, ever. Something about insisting on owning my experience… but clearly the right choice.

I’ll spare readers from my rant on social homogeneity in athletic culture, and let it suffice to say that my decision to quit was some intersection of setting and sport. I half-outlined these reasons in an email I sent to the team, which was probably the most difficult two paragraphs I ever had to write. I knew that no one would be surprised by my announcement, but still, it had to be just right. When I hit send, the 20+ hours/week commitment to the team immediately evaporated. And then, just like that, it was over.

Frequent reactions to my decision to quit from friends at home: “You can’t quit. You’re… [Panda-fuckin-monium]! You’re not a quitter.” And “Wow, I didn’t realize you hated it THAT much.” I didn’t hate it that much. I just didn’t really like it. Why do you have to absolutely loathe an activity to stop doing it? In 5 years, no one will care that I was an athlete. I’d rather spend those hours otherwise squandered in the pool engaged in something exciting, new, and productive. Like reading a book. Or sleeping.

Can you guess which one is Panda?

I felt kind of listless and disoriented in the couple weeks that followed my resignation. Here are three analogies that attempt to detail what it feels like to cease participation in a sport you’ve competed in for the past decade. Quitting a varsity sports team, and what followed, was like:

1.) Getting over an addiction, including occasional withdrawal symptoms. I’m now working out about half as much as I would be if I were still on the team. Which, granted, frees up a considerable amount of time in the week. But it’s still way more physical activity than I need. It’s just that exercising every single day has become such a fundamental part of my daily routine that I feel physically ill if I skip it. I just can’t seem to shake the habit. Athletics aren’t so different from recreational drug use; both are about pushing one’s body to its absolute limit, chasing that ever-elusive high.

2.) Withdrawing from a religion. Like, blowing out the candle of hopeful self-discipline and making that final jump into the black void that is lack of faith. And, in the dark, finding unexpected relief.

3.) Cutting off an unhealthy relationship with a long-time partner. Immersed in cold water, swimmers stare at the bottom of a pool for hours, breathing only occasionally. All this masochism for a race that, from entering the water to exiting it, can last less than a minute… Those that continue to compete through the years love to hate the sport. Or hate to love it. When the athlete and the sport are apart, he doesn’t want anything to do with it. But when they’re together – in the throes of passion, witnessing that superlative balance of sexiness and familiarity – he can’t imagine parting… But, alas all things come to an end.

I almost couldn’t handle the nostalgia of the past weekend. My friends who continued swimming in college just finished their seasons, and my high school’s conference meet coincided with NESCAC’s. Scanning results online, I couldn’t help but wish I were back there, reliving the glory I once knew. But that’s just the thing – I wish I were back. Not here – I had that option and chose not to compete, a decision I’m still happy with. But it really is time to find a replacement. Maybe a triathlon or marathon or adventure racing or something – some activity in which pushing myself physically will yield empirical results.

I remember that in the first few pages of the fat Fiske college guide, I was intrigued by the small school that described its students as “well-rounded, gentle-person jocks.” … Well I don’t know how true that is, but it’s right about the sports. The majority of students here are athletes or former athletes. And good ones, too. I work as an office assistant in the Admissions Department, which means I sort through an incredible amount of applications from prospective Lord Jeffs. Many of them are former athletes, but a strikingly disproportionate amount of them are former swimmers. And it seems like I keep meeting more and more ex-swimmers the longer I’ve been at Amherst.

Why swimming, why here? Is it something characteristic to the kind of student that applies to an elite college? To a small school? An LAC? I think that in general, kids here push themselves to realize every last bit of potential they might have. So it makes sense: competitive swimming is a staggering demonstration of self-motivation, and performance can be examined quantitatively so we can explicitly chart progress. We’re not satisfied with a pat on the back, a “good job” from some ephemeral authority figure. It’s all about the numbers. It’s all about the results you can numerically measure and compare against your competition. Like penis size, or SAT scores.

I had intended this post to be sort of epic – I wanted to spill my passions on the page, romanticize about the hole bored into my identity, and decry the injustices of sports culture. But that’s so beside the point. I’m content with my long run as a swimmer. I realized a lot of success, learned a thing or two about myself, and had my fun. But now on to bigger and, indeed, better things.