By Bailey Bickerstaff
Risk. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as “a source of danger; a venture undertaken without regard to possible loss or injury.” The word means different things to different people. To a mother, it could mean sick children. To an economist the word means an effort to produce capital; to a hapless driver, impending danger. I believe that on the path to defining yourself as a person, you need to define risk in your life. And then define why it’s there.
Swimming. Probably not synonymous with “risk” in the dictionary. In fact, swimming looks very safe as a non-weight-bearing, non-contact sport. Indeed, swimming is an admittedly safe sport. Physically. Mentally, not so much.
When we swim six days a week, two and a half hours a day, it’s hard to define why we do it. It’s not normally locker room conversation, and perhaps no one asks because nobody really knows. Swimmers claim, “We hate swimming, will never do it again!’ Then we show up for practice the next day. While muscles and technique don’t need a motivation to keep going, minds do. In finding that reason, swimmers find their worth.
It was the training cycle slump. It was the middle of season; we at the Swim Shack were in the middle of the training cycle, and, unfortunately, the middle of the week. We were all struggling physically, but I was struggling mentally as well. I had been thinking a lot about why I swim. I felt that the near future contained just that: the future. The future that every little kid refers to as the murky “maybe” that happens when you grow up. (In your five-year-old mind you place an “if” for the “when.” It seems so far away that you doubt you ever really will become an adult).
It troubled me that I might have been working my life away at something that would not serve me. The last thing I wanted was to look around and realize that my time was up, with nothing to show for it. I never wanted to quit swimming, but I was tired of being uncertain about my plans. I had never thought about risk.
Swimming hinges on risk. If you don’t take some risk in your career, chances are you won’t have one–at least not a very fulfilling career, for that matter. Swimming requires your heart and desires, demands your attention. Fulfilled swimming is a person fully immersed in… risk. The danger is different for each person: some fear injury, failure, bad swims. I began to realize that the uncontrollable future was what troubled me. The risk I saw in pursuing something surely uncertain almost overwhelmed my desire to do something I loved. Before swimming, I had never fully given in to something that I could not control. I knew I was smart; my success came after I studied. I knew I could control what I wrote, said, and did. Perhaps swimming attracted me because I saw something I could not control.
Risk: where we throw the dice, knowing our life could go one way, but desperately pray it goes the other. It permeates our lives, it makes us uncomfortable. It causes little girls who want to control everything to realize that the beauty in life is that they don’t. Perhaps risk is the reason for our success.
Afflicted by a recent case of the stomach flu, I excused myself early from swim practice and dragged my protesting body into the locker room. As I showered, a small girl of about eight was changing from her swimsuit into ballet wear. She was obviously a ballerina, I thought, as she carefully put her sweatpants over her tights and leotard. “What would she turn out to be? What kind of things will she accomplish?” As I looked at her, I saw it. The risk. It was beautiful.