I have a confession: after four years of strength-training-intensive college swimming, I have only recently learned how to properly do lunges. And squats. Seriously. I have poor balance and I would always fall over. I just couldn't do them. And I had never taken the time to learn how to do them properly, and therefore develop those specific muscles. And maybe I just wasn't built to do lunges anyway. At least, those were my excuses.
In high school, my training (all swimming) was very yardage-heavy. It was not unusual to do 8,000 yards a practice, or 11,000 yards a day (an hour and a half in the morning and two hours at night). We would occasionally get into a medicine-ball routine, or have a season that included a lot of crunches, but there was no definitive dry-land program that was implemented. So naturally, it was a big shock to me (and my muscles) to begin very intense strength training in college. Prior to this, I had managed to get pretty strong through just swimming - I knew that heavy yardage worked for me, and was prepared to do more of the same in college. However, that was not the case. College swimming relied on a thrice-weekly routine that involved calisthenics, medicine balls, and weight lifting sets to the point of failure. This was wholly unfamiliar to me, and I constantly felt like I had something to prove. I was supposed to be a fast recruit, and was already not living up to my potential for a number of reasons: college is a tremendously difficult transition in itself, and I don't think I allowed myself enough leeway to adjust; I was also having a difficult time staying healthy and was plagued with sinus infections from the start, and was still burnt out from certain high school struggles...and of course, that same boyfriend still plagued me. But I continued to be hard on myself, and didn't allow myself any leeway to adjust - I had to show everyone I was the best, even though I didn't really feel like it, and eventually, didn't really care.
For all of the time I had spent in the water, I was not very good at lifting weights. This embarrassed me. I wanted to show everyone how great I was. I wanted people to see that in me, because I didn't feel all that great myself. So I pushed myself, but not effectively. I pushed myself, and then would pinch a shoulder, or get sick and lose strength. I found more and more excuses to avoid weightlifting, because it made me feel even worse than I already felt, both in and out of the pool. And so I fell more and more behind the rest of the team as the season progressed. If I had been insecure about my strength levels before (well let's face it, I had been insecure about a lot more than that), at this point I felt defeated. And then I just felt nothing. I didn't care about swimming, about practice, about the team, about the rest of the season, about how I did. I found every possible excuse for my shortcomings, and for the first time in my life, had accepted failure as not just a possibility, but as the only available outcome. I no longer viewed myself as someone who could push herself to accomplish a goal, but someone who had given up and accepted that going through the motions was an acceptable alternative.
Fast-forward one year to another season, at a different college, on the other side of the country, with a different coach. But the same fears and insecurities still haunted me. My drive was inextricably broken but I could not find the strength to fix it. Much like my arms during practice, the wheels in my head spun out of control, but got me nowhere. But back to strength training. I had built a tremendous amount of muscle my freshman year due to the strength training routine my previous coach had implemented. I don't know how much it benefited me at the end of the season - by then, my attitude had so deteriorated that no amount of training would have been sufficient. (It should also be said that I also spent a significant amount of the season being sick with various sinus infections and persistent bronchitis. How much can be attributed to this, and how much of my weakened immune system was tied in to my mental state, I don't know.) But the fact remains that I had now put on quite a bit of muscle, and then proceeded to take five months off from athletic endeavors in general. My newer, more muscular stature became additional fuel for my burgeoning insecurities, and I convinced my new coach that I needed more time in the pool. I knew that I had had previous success from minimal weight training and heavy yardage, so that was what we did. But still, things were off - I would struggle with fatigue, and lose my motivation quickly. It was not the training that was off, it was me.
As college swimming came to a close, I felt an inextricable sense of relief and disappointment. No part of my college career had gone the way I felt it should have, or how I had hoped, and much if it felt like an empty attempt to recapture what I had once had in high school. I failed to see the experience as unique in its own set of challenges and opportunities because I was stuck in this mindset that I had failed myself once, and therefore would continue to do so no matter what I did. There are ways to see every opportunity as a setback, just as there are ways to see every setback as an opportunity, and I had entrenched myself in the former. So what does this have to do with strength training? To me, my aversion to strength training served as a metaphor for my resistance to free myself from the traps I had constructed for myself. Instead of looking for new implementations to become stronger, I reached for old excuses to let myself fulfill my predictions of inadequacy. These are not happy sentiments to type, but looking back, I recognize these experiences as opportunities from which there are tremendous lessons to learn. A negative attitude is a huge obstacle to overcome, but once you have, you realize how much littler things are in comparison.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." For me, that was learning how to do lunges. I had borne witness to huge setbacks, both within and outside my control, for too many years. But those setbacks had given me an irreplaceable gift - I knew the discomfort, the uneasiness, the disappointment those setbacks brought. And I knew the courage to get through them. I had done that, and lived to see another day. Finding the courage to wrestle with your fears is the only way to learn that they will not break you.
My training thus far, including my little strength circuit, has been immensely rewarding because it has given me a chance for redemption. I have learned some hard-fought lessons, and now I have an opportunity to turn what I have long seen as my past failures into success - not in time, or in distance, although those tangible measurements allow me to recognize my progress, as well as my path ahead. I find myself with occasion each day to face my fears, to test my limits, to accept each challenge with a clear head and a ready smile as the gift of opportunity.