Last week, I got to reminiscing about my childhood. I grew up in Detroit, MI, and thinking about how I grew up and what kind of person I was, I realize how it all seems so different from who I am today. I hopped online and began looking up my old high school and I remembered a major learning moment in my life: my time on the high school swim team and, especially, my swim coach. After one quick google search, I learned that he is still coaching and was even nominated as coach of the year a few years ago. I felt compelled to reach out to him, not to get anything in return, but to share with him a little bit about my journey as an athlete and how my season with him impacted me. Here is what I said:
Dear Coach Greg,
This is going to be so random–trust me!
I was on the SHS girls swim team in the fall 1994 season when I was a freshman. I was new to being an athlete. I hadn’t yet learned the role sports & competition would later play in my life. Im sure you don’t remember me. In fact, Im willing to bet you do not remember me even after reading this email, but maybe you have our old team picture filed away somewhere and it might jog your memory.
Im writing to you because I am now a coach and trainer. My life was forever changed because I became a competitive athlete and I often flash back to my brief time with you as my coach because that was definitely a low point in my life. All of my shortcomings presented themselves at that time, only then, I didn’t understand how or why they prevented me from being a standout on the team. I understand now. In fact, believe it or not, I often reference the time you were so mad at one of our practices that you shoved your desk across the deck and I can’t remember if it actually made it into the pool or not but I remember being scared and also impressed at how you let your disappointment and anger out that day. But I still didn’t understand why our lack of performance made my coach so mad. I understand now. I understand how personal it is when your athletes don’t perform to their full ability.
I was writing a post for my new website the other day and tears began flowing as I recalled and wrote about why I didn’t letter the season I swam for you. Its a lesson that I learned but only appreciate now. I didn’t realize the deep shame I’ve carried in me all these years as a result. I wanted to share this story with you now:
I used to be so afraid of competition because ultimately, I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to lose. To let someone down, to under perform. To not meet expectations. I was so scared of not being good enough that I subconsciously held myself back from trying. I am referring to my short, 1-year stint on my high school swim team. The biggest accomplishment and badge of honor that a swim team member could have after the 1 year mark, even as a freshman, was the high school letter on a letterman jacket. Especially at Stevenson High School in 1994. And I didn’t get one.
My coach had 2 prerequisites for lettering: a 2.8 GPA or higher and participate in every meet.
I used to get horrible nausea from performance anxiety before every meet. I hated meets. I had an absolute fear of competing. I hated swim meets, but liked the practice. I liked belonging to something but I hated the discomfort of my muscles aching and my lungs burning as I struggled to breathe under the water and I swam my ass off only to never come in first. I wasn’t a great swimmer and I wasn’t a good athlete. I was average at best. I was just coming out of two years at a Junior High School where I allowed myself to be bullied every day and my self confidence was down to that of a cockroach. I just didn’t have any fight in me. I wasn’t a stand-out, and more importantly, I didn’t show my coaches any behavior that warranted them investing extra time in me. I basically sat back and collected my participation ribbon and that was it.
I will never forget that one swim meet where my anxiety got the best of me. This time, I told my coach that I was sick and I could not swim my event. Reluctantly, he allowed me to call for a ride and go home. For whatever reason, my mom took forever picking me up that evening. I ended up hanging out at the school for at least half of the meet. Just lolly gagging around in the hallway, dragging my feet, kicking rocks, waiting on my ride and feeling relieved that I wasn’t in the pool getting my butt kicked. I felt really guilty but not guilty enough to override my laziness.
I rounded the corner of the hallway and there was my coach. Walking towards, and past me, on his way to somewhere. Our eyes met and he knew I wasn’t sick and I knew that he knew. He said nothing to me.
Fast forward to the end of season banquet. My name was called for my certificate of acknowledgment that I participated as an athlete in the season. No letterman letter was attached. I was the only athlete that didn’t letter that year. I watched all my teammates accept their honor except for me. I felt like such a loser. A failure and a standout in the worst way. All the things I was afraid I would be had I competed that day.
So what did I learn?
I learned that failure follows you wherever you go. It boils down to the mindset of achievement. Either you have it or you don’t. And if you don’t have it, you have the choice to go and get it or stand idly by and wait for that yellow participation ribbon.
I read this story out loud to my husband and sobbed while doing so. Therefore I knew in my heart, that this experience meant something to me. Its a scar that I carry and subconsciously I make sure that I never go back to being that version of myself ever again.
After the 1994 season, my mom moved us to Arizona. I never swam again. I was intimidated even more because I grew up in Livonia my whole life and being a shitty swimmer at a new school with no friends was not something I could emotionally handle at that time. I went through high school being insecure and gained a lot of weight. I graduated fat and yada yada….
I am now 38 years old and I own a gym called Alpha Elite Fitness. I believe there is freedom in discipline. I do not call myself a trainer but instead, a coach. We push our clients outside their comfort zone by any means necessary. My slogan at my gym is “we aren’t for everybody, but we should be”.
We drop f-bombs and we are gritty. People are “intimidated” by me, which is so weird. Apparently I’m “scary”. But they respect me because I always share my truth about where I came from and why I am the way I am now. And of course, my swim coach Greg, throwing his desk, is an often shared story.
I took up the sport of may thai kickboxing at 19 and have competed since, stepping in the ring without fear and ripping the head off my opponent.
I no longer collect yellow participation ribbons.
I just wanted to reach out and say thanks.
Being a coach, I know how meaningful it is when and athlete says “hey, you made a difference in my life and heres how…”. So I’m doing that for you now.
You made a difference in my life because you didn’t go above and beyond to invest in me. I didn’t give you anything and you didn’t give me anything back. I needed to know what that felt like and now I know. I wanted someone to invest in me. I wanted validation. But I wanted it without doing the work. Thank you for not rewarding my sub par behavior with the gift of attention. Thank you for being a coach and not a cheerleader who doles out pats on the back just because.
Kimberly Ann Elliott