It was the oversized ears, the goofy grin, and the genuine happiness you displayed after each victory that made me–a 14-year-old at the time–fall in love with you during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Oh, and the washboard abs. Those helped too.
Or maybe it was your story: a young man on a mission to prove that “hard work and dedication” could make him the most decorated athlete ever. I had always heard athletes throw that phrase around–“hard work and dedication”–but never really understood what it meant. It takes only a quick glance at the Snow family photo album to learn that as a kid, I was not athletic nor did I have any interest in physical activity. Another quick glance will prove that this makes absolutely no sense: I inherited exactly 0% of the sports prowess present on both sides of my family, especially my father’s. The human genome had failed me. I was afraid of getting hit in the face with a volleyball. I could not run or jump fast or far. My seventh-grade ego, so used to success in academics and the arts, couldn’t suffer the defeat of losing a soccer game. I was useless wearing cleats, a catcher’s mitt, or ballerina shoes.
But whatever it was that caught my interest, you inspired me to swim. It wasn’t until this year, during your final Olympic Games in London, that I realized how much swimming has changed me as a person. I learned so many lessons from competing that apply to every other area of life–which is what makes sports so great. The following is a list of things that wouldn’t have been possible without swimming–that wouldn’t have been possible without you:
- I met some of my closest friends and mentors, many of whom I am still close with.
- I learned the value of “hard work”–practices with cold weather and long, tedious sets; swimming through injuries and sickness–and saw it pay off before my eyes: first place finishes, personal bests, and thumbs-ups from coaches.
- On the flip side, I learned that when I didn’t do my best in practice, it showed in my race times.
- I watched some people do their absolute best in practice but barely maintain mediocre times. I watched others be incredibly lazy in practice but inexplicably blow everyone away at meets. It’s completely unfair, but it’s the truth: in sports, as in life, some people are just naturals. I was not a natural, but I learned to accept that.
- Swimming is both a team and an individual sport. Don’t compare your times to others’, especially people who have been swimming much longer and practicing much harder than you. The team just expects you to do your best. You should have the same expectations of yourself.
- I learned how to be part of a team, how to be happy for others when they succeeded and how to comfort them when they fell short as so many people did for me.
- I learned that if you swim a bad time, it’s not the end of the world. Really, it isn’t. Next time you will do better. (And that always turned out to be true.)
- The more you relax, the more likely you are to perform well. Your body knows what to do; let it do it.
- As captain of my high school team, I learned how to lead by example. And like all leaders, I learned that not everyone will like you, but the people who don’t usually suck anyway.
- I learned that who people are in the pool says a lot about who they are outside of it.
- I learned how to balance my life with the added mental and physical commitment of being an athlete. I gained respect for my friends and family who I knew were training for different sports much harder than I was in both high school and college.
- I discovered that I had a cartilage disorder in my left knee that required surgery. The recovery was difficult and frustrating, but I learned to appreciate the amazing healing abilities of the human body.
- I learned to be comfortable with competing, to be grateful for success and accepting of defeat. (This was the most difficult lesson, and one that I have had to keep learning over and over!)
- By my senior year I was a White Letter, Four-Year Varsity captain with experience on a club team. I got a county-wide award and made it to high school regional finals my last two years. I know that stating that on my college applications had something to do with the fact that I got a scholarship to the University of Oregon–something that has also changed my life. (But that’s a whole different story.) There’s a possibility that whoever was reading my application knew, as I did, that sports teaches you lessons that few other things can.
There were plenty of swimmers faster, more seasoned, and more talented than I was, and I certainly wasn’t anywhere close to the best. I was not cut out to be an Olympian like you, and that’s fine with me. But the fact that I could succeed in an area that I had dismissed for my first 14 years of life rocked my world. What I have gained from swimming has carried over into every area of my life…and will most definitely aid me in my Peace Corps service this winter.
After you were disappointed by a fourth-place finish in the 400 IM, I watched you blow away the world of sports by shattering the decades-old record for most decorated Olympian of all time with a gold medal victory in the 4×200 freestyle relay, then the final race of your Olympic career in the medley relay. It was not only the end of an era for you, but for me too. I have followed you for almost half of my life and although the time I spent in the pool pales in comparison to you, my experience as a swimmer has changed me for good.
You can add to your golds, silvers, and bronzes the knowledge that you changed a stubborn, pudgy, bookish 14-year-old’s life. Now that 14-year-old is me, and I would not be me without you.