Looking at my swimming career, I see it in 4-year blocks ending with the Olympic Games. The four years leading up to making my first Olympics in 2004, then the 4 years leading up to missing the 2008 Olympic team, and the 4 years leading up to the London Games in 2012.
Now I am in the block of 4 years leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Each of the above 4-year blocks has brought about its own challenges, and with it, its own unique and interesting journey.
People often see Olympic athletes as the pinnacle of health and fitness. However, my own career as an athlete has left me feeling anything but healthy. I amaze myself sometimes with my performances on days when I have been in pain that interferes with even the most mundane activities of daily life, like housework, walking my dog, or going up and down stairs.
Part of my athletic process has always been learning to shut out the messages from your body that things are not right, and to ignore pain. However, as my success continued I realized that there was an endgame out there somewhere, and that my body and my mind would run out of coping options at some point. Also, in spite of being in a program that is fundamentally based in health as the way to high performance, my abilities to train at the elite level were being challenged. And, most importantly, as I get older, I am realizing that after swimming, I have a life, family, and a career that will fill my days. I want these aspects to thrive, and not be subject to compromise and pain. With my success, it got harder and harder to change my training, change the way I viewed sports, and to change my definition of health.
So, recovering and re-establishing my health has become the first step on my latest 4-year journey. I have to wonder, if I put my body first, training in ways that are healthy and give my body the chance to work like it was designed to work, doesn’t it seem logical that better race performance would follow? This approach makes sense to me!
I have had more injuries than I want to write down. It seems to always be something. Currently I am dealing with shoulder joint issues that were the result of a freak accident during a race last summer. It’s incredible how strong I can feel in the pool but at the same time how weak I can feel in my everyday life. When I thought about putting my body through what I’d done in the past I was ready to walk away from the sport all together. Mentally and physically I couldn’t handle feeling weak and injured while at the same time promoting health and wellness. I am troubled by watching young kids being taught the same techniques in the pool that I feel may have led to my body’s general health deterioration. I am also disturbed watching children piling long duration onto un-natural movements, pounding their bodies in unhealthy ways. I see my own diligence and dedication in these kids, who are simply trying to get faster in the sport of competitive swimming. I have to believe that we can be just as fast, and faster, in the pool without doing long-term damage to joints, skeletal structure, and overall health.
Leading up to the London Olympics I started the switch to healthy movements, trying to view my strokes with new eyes. Taking information given to me by my coaches and applying it to my own body and my own understanding of speed in the water, I began to sense and feel what might be possible in our sport through new approaches to health and movement. I truly believe I had just scratched the surfaced when I won my gold medal and set the world record in the 100m Butterfly. Females will certainly go much, much faster out there somewhere in the future in this event.
So, I am now staying in Boston, MA to work with physical therapist Kipp Dye who has worked closely with my advisor Milt Nelms. My Coach Teri McKeever introduced me to Milt several years ago and encouraged me to work with him in addition to my training with her at Cal. An important step is to spend the next 17 days in Boston to set up a long-term therapy and rehabilitation plan. Milt will be on hand for part of that time to help me adjust my exercise and movement habits to integrate with the therapy. In a way, I would describe the process as (A) recover health (B) get into good enough shape to start training (C) start training so that swimming makes me healthier and faster, not just faster at the expense of my health. There is no way to know how long this process will take – but I am excited to be getting started on this next and different journey.