Female Swimmer Finds Delayed Gratification

Daniela Moroz, Staff Writer

When most people think of swimming, they think of Olympians like Michael Phelps with their giant shoulders, six-packs, awe-inspiring performances, and of course, a few Olympic medals (of which Phelps has plenty). What usually is overlooked however, is the critical part that psychology plays in such athletic achievement.

Sure, in the water, those giant shoulders serve Phelps well, but behind all the strokes, turns, and what seem like endless laps, is a mind that ultimate determines the difference between gold and silver. The championship mentality – which is extremely difficult to cultivate – is the primary factor in Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time.

2 years before the 2012 London Games, Phelps was struggling to improve his times. This type of performance plateau is something every simmer experiences. It can be a difficult time, mentally, leading to frustration.  For some, it is too much, and they end up dropping out of the sport.

I am a long distance freestyler. This means I swim the 1650 yard (the mile), the 1000 yard and the 500 yard events at almost every meet. On November 22, 2014, I swam a 19:11.99 in the mile. It wasn’t until December 6, 2015 that I improved with a time of 18:48.78. I had to endure 6 miles of competition before experiencing another improvement.

For female swimmers, such a performance plateau commonly occurs during puberty. For boys, puberty means more testosterone-bigger, stronger muscles, which leads to improved performance. But for girls, the consequences of physical change as a result of puberty are not the same. A teenage girl may experience years of frustration as it becomes more and more difficult to equal the times she set prior to puberty.

Being a competitive simmer is hard work: it includes eating well, staying hydrated (which often means having to use the bathroom every 30 minutes), and embracing hours of practice.  To do all of this and not see a return in the form of improvement can be emotionally devastating.

How do girls get through it?

It’s different for everyone. To quote a wise fish: You have to “just keep swimming” and believing that you will drop time. It sounds easy, but the fact is, we all have a hard time pursuing gratification that can be a long way off.

There is hope however. While he isn’t a girl, Phelps is still a good example of an athlete who weathered a long period without improvement, and came of that period to achieve even greater success.

Imagine if he had quit during those stagnant years? 

Fortunately, he did not.  He kept swimming, and he kept believing in the future, as distance as it might have been, when success would return to him. 

This is what keeps the spirit alive in those who manage to overcome such painfully long periods of delayed gratification.  They perceive that distant glimmer of hope and latch on to it with a fixation, a mental ferocity that fuels their efforts.