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Marget Shelly: Loving Your Sport

As a collegiate athlete, I think that most people would agree that they wouldn’t be doing what they do if they did not love their sport. The schedule is no joke. As a swimmer, you lose count of the early mornings, late nights, lost weekends, and times you have to say “sorry I can’t, I have practice.” Walking around campus with aching muscles, falling asleep at your desk from pure exhaustion, missing friends’ birthdays, and so much of what people would argue makes the “classic college experience” is not something that I think anyone would give up without a deep love for the sport they play. Nothing about being a collegiate athlete is the walk in the park it can be made out to be.

I love swimming. It was my safe space. My mind was always clearer in the water. The gentle splash of the water by my ear and the smell of chlorine could reveal solutions to problems that felt jumbled in my mind. There was no room to worry about the things that bothered me at swim practice. All I had to focus on was the next rep, the next set, the next stroke. More often than not, when I got out of the pool at the end of the day, I felt better than I had when I arrived on deck.

When I got to college, the change in environment on the pool deck was startling. I was not aware that I was entering a team where swimmers were pitted against each other for a spot. Cuts were always looming over my head, and this feeling of anxiety was only compounded by the fact that I could tell that there were clear coaches favorites, and I was on the outside. I struggled to sleep, there was a constant weight on my chest, and I started dreading going to swim practice. Waking up at 5 to be at the pool by 6 felt like I was walking to a gauntlet. I would start worrying about specific practices, days in advance, because I knew what kind of set it would be. I was always worrying about having my “best practice ever”, because I felt like traveling to meets, going on training trips, and my spot on the team was constantly hanging in the balance. I did not feel like I could talk to my coaches about it because there was an underlying worry that they would see it as a weakness.

It was exhausting to feel like no matter what I did, I was never good enough. I started to hate swimming, and that was heartbreaking to me. The one thing that was always a comfort to me was now where I felt the most anxiety. I was no longer swimming for myself. I was not swimming because it was where I felt like the strongest, truest, most beautiful version of myself. I was swimming to prove to coaches and teammates that I deserved to be there, that I belonged, that I was good enough, and it was sucking the joy out of the sport I had loved for 15 years. The hard truth that I had to learn was that I had always been good enough, I did deserve my spot on the team, and there was nothing that any coach could say to me that could change that.

Sometimes, as an athlete, you need tough love. But another lesson I learned was that the line between tough love and something else can be crossed, and just because I was an athlete, and I was supposed to be “tough”, did not mean I had to take it. This is especially true as a woman in collegiate athletics. The last thing any athlete wants is to be told they are not tough, or that they are being too sensitive. So, sometimes, we take things that maybe, we should not. We wait to cry in the locker room or on our walk home or into our goggles. We do anything to avoid showing emotion, and in turn be considered weak or sensitive, in front of the coaching staff that we crave respect from. My biggest piece of advice to current student-athletes is to remember who you are. Who you are runs so much deeper than your identity as a student-athlete, and nothing that any coach says to you can take that away. Go to practice every day and give it your all because you love to do it. There is nothing like the satisfaction of a good practice, of pushing yourself to the limit, and of knowing just how strong you are. Those are the things that you will carry with you into your professional career for the rest of your life.

I have been retired from the sport of swimming for about 4 months now, and just the other day I went swimming for “fun” for the first time. I won’t lie, there was a moment of panic before I dove in that I had forgotten how and that my body did not move like that anymore. It was a strange feeling, but once I started swimming, I remembered just how calming it was. Just me, the water, and the black line.

I’ve come to realize that part of my identity will always be wrapped up in swimming. I don’t mean in how fast I was or the Big Ten teams I made or didn’t make. I am so much more than a lane and a time and a number and a scholarship and a ranking in a coach’s book. I mean the part of me that will always feel more comfortable in the water than out of it. The part of me that feels strong, courageous, and beautiful when I dive into a pool. The part of me that will always secretly love my broad shoulders. There will always be a part of my heart that just loves to swim. I took my joy back, and for any other student-athlete out there who is struggling, I promise that you can take it back too. Remember who you are and why you wanted to be a collegiate athlete in the first place. Compete because you love to do it and because that is where you feel like the truest and most beautiful version of yourself. Believe in yourself and your worth, because you deserve every good thing. And I promise, better days are coming.


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Oct 26, 2022

Powerful, thought-provoking piece. Thank you for sharing, Marget.


Oct 20, 2022

Thank you for sharing. I swam w/ your dad. I arrived at Penn State from a childhood 12 time zones away! Swimming was about the only familiar thing to me - a good friend. At 51 I still draw from "The Black Line", it was.a gateway to surfing in the Pacific and open water swimming where I live now near the Bay. It's also a source of pride I tap into. Continue to apply your swimming creatively in all walks of your life. God Speed Marget!

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