I wouldn’t say that swimming has been my life, but it certainly has been a major part. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a swimmer. I still remember swimming my first length of backstroke, a crooked line across the pool. I was so excited because I knew a diagonal line is a longer distance than straight one. I have so many summer memories of laying on the hot concrete after a morning practice to dry off, the warm Colorado sun drying my back. It was all I did, especially during the summer when school wasn’t there to take my time away from the water. My dad even called me a pool rat, because I spent everyday at the pool all summer long. I found that love again with the Wheaton College team, but it was not an easy journey in between.
As I grew into my middle school years, I lost my love for swimming. I became lazy and stubborn. One day when my father had driven me to practice, I refused to get out of the car, and I was sure I would win this stubbornness battle. He told me to go to my practice, and I accused him of just wanting me to be a swimmer like him. He said I had to go, not because it was swimming but because I had committed to a season of it. I grumpily finished the season, but was so happy to be finally released from the chains swimming.
Curious but not really interested, I went to the meeting for the high school swim team my freshman year. I decided to give it a try, and ended up joining because of the teammates and the coach. I really bonded with those girls, and ended up relishing those relationships over the rest of high school. I remember my first big high school state championship meet, and how nervous I was. And I remember my last, surrounded by my good friends. All in all, I learned to love my team, but still had not regained the original joy I had in swimming from when I was young. That was not to come until my college years.
Conference during my freshman year of college was the start of this journey. There, I finally felt “free to swim.” Many of the pressures I had felt when I quit swimming so many summers before simply fell away and I had so much joy when I raced or cheered on my teammates. That year, I got a best time in every event, and both the men’s and women’s teams won conference. I will never forget what it felt like to celebrate with my teammates that night. Much of our happiness was made possible because of the challenges we had overcome to get to that point. It wasn’t easy, but we had accomplished something bigger than ourselves. God, however, had bigger things planned.
This year’s conference competition was quite the tall task, though I don’t want to misrepresent or diminish any of the Wheaton women’s past conference wins. During my first three years on the team, it was very expected that we would win. Last year, in fact, we won by 239 points. One year in 1999, the women won by 352 points, which is incredibly dominant in the swimming world. Coachie always talks about the conference meet a few years after when the women could have won by about 400 points, but did not step up and race hard. They nearly lost — only winning the meet by three points.
It had always been our expectation going into conference that we would win. After graduating six seniors last year, five of whom were Nationals swimmers (one a National Champion while the other won her event at conference), winning another CCIW championship was going to be quite the challenge. Even with so many past years of success, we were not as confident or optimistic as we had been in years past. All the same, we were still determined to do our best to recreate our championship magic from the years prior.
During our first prayer meeting at conference, we prayed that our team would glorify God in all of our races and show his love to the other teams. I silently prayed along that we would do the same with whatever outcome there was at the end, and had a vision of how challenging it would be to glorify God in the wake of a potential loss to Carthage. Doable? Yes. Easy? Certainly not.
The next couple days of the meet were centered around focusing our team’s joy on swimming for God’s glory and trying not to worry about our results. Slowly, we began to accrue points and, with Carthage, pulled away from the rest of the teams. By the last day, we were practically tied with Carthage, but they had more swimmers racing that day and thus more opportunities to collect points.
In the pre-session overview, Coachie focused on the 100 freestyle. He pointed out that we had to step up in the event in order to retain our chance of winning the meet because there were a lot of Carthage girls in the event. As we left the meeting, Coachie placed plastic diamonds in our palms and asked us, “How are diamonds made?” We each answered, “Under pressure!”
My teammate Jen Barich-Mooday and I felt this pressure keenly behind the blocks because we knew each girl had to edge out a Carthage swimmer to ensure a Wheaton advantage going into the last relay. Knowing that the meet, and the 20-year streak, weighed on our ability to perform in the next race undoubtedly added to the pressure we felt. That knowledge became even scarier when we both felt our tapers ending and the rested, “snappy” feeling from our great swims earlier in the meet beginning to wear off.
Jen and I put our arms around each other, bowed our capped heads together, and prayed — that we would be able to leave everything we had in the water, and to not put our identity in the results (of the race or of the meet). We got on the blocks and prepared to dive into the water. The roar of the crowd was too loud so the official said, “Quiet for the start,” then “Take your mark… go!”
Every time I race the 100 freestyle I suddenly remember how painful it is to race. We pushed through and touched the wall, and looked at the board together — we had touched first and second in the heat and had beat all the Carthage swimmers we raced! After we climbed out of the pool Jen and I embraced and started crying, overwhelmed with the strength God had given to us to make it through to the end. Neither of us could stand so we sat and rejoiced the gift God had given us.
The Women’s Team sealed our victory during the final relay (Wheaton 791, Carthage 745), and we were all overcome with the blessing of adding to a long line of swimming legacies. I found myself sobbing, on my knees behind the blocks, completely humbled unlike anything else I had ever experienced as I realized that this was not done by our strength.
Looking back, it was solely God’s design and plan that I would not leave swimming forever as a stubborn middle schooler. He had a reason for me to return to the sport. In this moment, huddled on the floor in a crying ball, I saw this as I examined God’s impact on my life in a way in which was incredibly powerful and new. This knowledge of God’s pleasure in my life encompassed every fiber of my being as I finally understood what it meant to be “free to swim” for something other than myself.