I feel that since most of the above writeups are focused on the relaxation one can feel while swimming, I have to expand on Wedge.net
's writeup. Competitive swimming can be anything but relaxing.
It was the winter of my senior year of high school. I had joined the swim team the previous year for many reasons. There were the speedos, the exercise, and the fact that all of my friends were on the swim team, and it gave us a place to hang out. Practice was a lot of fun, and a great release for some of the pent-up tension from the daily frustrations of high school. Since I'd only been swimming for a year, I still wasn't very good at it, but it was fun nonetheless.
And then there were the competitions. I really hated the competitions. My heart would beat ten times faster as I entered the pool area, aware that my performance that day would affect my team's success. They didn't really expect much of me, but they needed me just to be there and complete the events to get a few spare points. That much I could do. So time after time I would come in last place in the 50 free, the 200 free relay, and the 400 free relay. I was always put into sprinting events for some reason, and I always did badly.
Then finally the day came that I was put in the 500 free, the distance event in high school. I wasn't sure if I could swim 500 yards, but the coach thought I could, so I tried. I still came in last place, but the anxiety wasn't nearly as bad. There's something about waiting for ten minutes all for a race that's over in thirty seconds. Your anxiety builds, and builds, and then you unleash it all very suddenly, and then the race is over. The 500 was a very different race. My anxiety would disappear as soon as I hit the water, and I was free to swim like I did in practice. It felt much better, and I wasn't as far off as I was in the sprinting events.
Before long I trimmed a few minutes off of my time until I was down in the 7-8 minutes range, which to be honest was pretty good for someone with my experience. I had gotten good enough that I could actually stand a chance while competing for something other than last place. One day, I got the chance to prove myself.
It was the week of Valentine's Day, and my boyfriend at the time came to cheer me on. My friends, too, were there of course. There was a good deal of pressure on me, because it was a fairly close match so far. There were only three people racing that day, because some teams just don't have enough swimmers to put them in these events. One of the other people racing was John, one of my teammates. He was very fast, so I knew he would get first place. It was all a matter of who would be getting second place. I wanted very much for it to be me.
As soon as we hit the water, John left us in the dust. Gradually, I saw the other guy getting further and further ahead of me. A 500 is 20 laps, so that gave him plenty of time to creep away from me. The entire time I was pushing myself just to keep up with him, not to let him get so far away that I didn't stand a chance to catch up. John finished minutes before us, so we were left racing as the crowd cheered. He was half a pool length ahead of me going into the final lap, but he seemed to be tiring. I heard my friends cheering for me and saw them as I did my turn. I saw my boyfriend too. They all were cheering for me, and they all had confidence in me. I wanted to impress my boyfriend so bad. I wanted to win.
I don't know how it happened. By all laws of nature and physics, I should have been so tired that I could barely have finished the race at all. I reached deep down inside though, to a place I never knew existed. I liberated this part of me, this part of pure instinct and pure determination. I shot off the wall like a bat out of hell, and decided right then and there that I would not lose that race.
My blood was pure adrenaline as my arms propelled me forward, as if they were independent from the rest of my body. I lost all of my usual focus on going stroke by stroke; I knew the form, and so did my body. I let my body worry about the details, and just unleashed a torrent of energy that sped me through the water. The guy was getting closer, and closer. It was obvious that he was worn out. My body tore its way through the water, blasting right past the other guy in the last five yards, claiming a great personal victory. I don't even know if my victory then had any impact on my team's victory, but it doesn't matter. It meant a lot to me, personally. I went back to my boyfriend and we smiled at each other, and I put my head on his shoulder and felt my body coming to terms with the effort I had just put forth.
To me, swimming is not about relaxing anymore. I've experienced the feeling of relaxation that people talk about, but it really has nothing on the feeling I felt that day. Somehow, now, I can call on that feeling at will while I swim. My body surges with strange energy that I didn't know I had, and I push myself beyond what I think is physically possible. It is a new and altogether different kind of freedom than the experience of weightlessness. I don't think I have ever been as free or as happy in my entire life as I was that day, the first day I felt that deep, ancient connection to my body.