What I Wish I'd Known As An Age Group Swimmer

By Temarie Tomley, Swimming World College Intern 

After celebrating my recent birthday, I realized just how old I’ve gotten and how long I’ve been in this game. I’ve been swimming for 15 years, and in those 15 years I have learned so much. Everyone’s journey through this sport is different, and here I just want to share a little bit of what I wish I’d known when I was a young age group swimmer.

I want you to picture a girl, a little girl with multi-colored nails. She’s wearing a cap with her ears sticking out, eyes wide and a smile even wider. Her reversible suit has dolphins on it, and it’s her favorite.

That was me.

If I could go back and talk to that girl, the first thing I would tell her is that this sport will beat you to the bottom of the pool more times than you will be able to count… but every single time you will rise back better, stronger, with something new learned.

This sport has taught me more about myself and who I want to be than any school classroom. It’s taught me who I am, how strong I am, and that I can do anything. I’ve learned to be a teammate, to smile and laugh through the hard times, to love myself and others, to forgive and be forgiven, and how to be the best athlete I can be. This sport doesn’t discriminate against who you are, it will take you in and forever change your life.

It all starts with training, and as a young swimmer, you don’t have any idea about the years of grueling training ahead and the amount of sacrifices you will have to make. It creeps up on you slowly, and suddenly you’re in the midst of an impossible threshold set and you don’t know how you got there or whether you’re going to make it through. You will be tested every day in the pool, both mentally and physically, but I’d tell that little girl that it’s worth every second when you reach those goals.

The second piece of advice I’d want to tell my younger self is that I’m the tortoise and not the hare.

Everything is going to work out, but you have to be patient. Slow and steady training will win the race in the end. Throughout my career, I’m usually not the one having huge time drops, although they have occurred. I’m the one who consistently gets better every season, a little at a time.

Everyone wants those huge breakout swims, but it’s the slow and steady swimmers, the determined swimmers improving a little bit at a time, who will push through, surprise themselves, and usually continue with the sport the longest. These little time drops always kept me hungry and wanting more, so I was always motivated to work harder. I would want myself to know back then that I will get there, and that I will keep getting better.

The next thing I would tell myself is how awesome I am.

I don’t know how many kids are out there who tell themselves this, but I wasn’t one of them. I never believed I was that good of a swimmer. I was always too hard on myself and didn’t really know how to love myself like I loved the sport I was playing. Because of that, I didn’t have a lot of confidence and struggled to own who I was. This got worse in high school, but it was something I finally learned when I got to college.

I don’t think kids are told how amazing they are every day and how much they have to offer the world, swimming or otherwise. Swimming was always my safe haven and was a place where I loved to go and felt like I could be myself. It was the one place where I felt like everything was right and where I felt like I was always supposed to be. I knew I was meant to swim, so that’s what I did. And I haven’t looked back since. My only regret from my early swimming days is missing out on the joy and confidence I have now.

I would tell my little self to take a second and breathe.

To just look around and appreciate where I’m at and the people I’m with. To enjoy a body that can just keep going like the Energizer bunny and can put away pounds of food like it’s my job. To step away from the pool and enjoy more things away from it. To realize how blessed I am and to not only thank God for everything, but give Him all the glory.

To ease up on myself and be able to look back and see how my work is paying off. To see where I came from and where I’m going because, ultimately, if you don’t become a better person in the process, you are missing the point. If there’s anything that’s true it’s that swimming will always be there, has always been there, so don’t forget about your life outside the water as well.

And it’s okay to not be the best at 12, or 13, or even 14.

Be a kid, take breaks in between seasons, and miss a few practices. You don’t need to worry about fast suits or rankings yet. Keep playing soccer and basketball. You are not just one stroke or event – try everything. Don’t worry about double practices or weights until junior year of high school – you don’t have to be the biggest yet. Don’t worry about not breaking a minute in the 100 free right this second – you’ll be under 50 seconds in no time.

Make the mistakes now. This is the time to make them and learn from them: have your goggles fall off, start swimming the wrong event or the wrong stroke, and have your suit rip right before a race. You are still too young to try and get it all right all the time.

I’d tell myself that hard work will make you happy.

Talent and ribbons and medals and first place finishes won’t because they don’t mean anything right now. The only thing that truly will make you happy and will matter is the toughness you put into every practice and race. And when you do succeed because of that hard work you’ll be able to look back on everything you’ve done and be proud of yourself. You will know that you gave it everything you had. When the doubt comes creeping in, the only thing you will have is yourself and how much work you did or didn’t put in.

Finally, I would say to my little age group self to always believe in yourself and your goals and dreams because there are so many great big things that are waiting.

I hope everybody finds the same love that I have found in swimming because it and the people in it have taught me so many things that I am beyond grateful for. Even with all of my knowledge and experience, I am still only a student to the sport. I hope that as I continue on this swim journey, to not only keep on learning and getting better, but to also be able to teach and help others in ways that I wasn’t. I have managed to continue to love this sport for 15 years and I know I will continue to love it for the rest of my life.

And although I can’t fit into that old favorite dolphin-patterned suit of mine anymore, I still have the same big eyes, wide smile, and love for the sport of swimming.