1-2-3-4-5-6 breathe, 1-2-3-4-5-6-breathe, remember to kick, breathe, flip-turn, kick-kick-kick-kick-kick-kick 1-2-3-4-5-6 breathe…
Another varsity swim team meet. The 200 freestyle—my event. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of a girl’s hand in the next lane. She was catching up; she was pulling even. Ha, let her tire herself out, I thought. I knew I could beat her; she was going to spend herself on catching up, and I’d put on a burst at the end and win this.
My teammates were cheering; when I turned my head and one ear broke the surface of the water, I could hear them. It was pleasant, almost lazy feeling, slipping through the water, my heart pounding, knowing I could win this race. I was faster than the other girls. I was an eel, an otter, a dolphin with my hand-fins cutting through the pool.
When I won, I was not surprised. I got out of the water, pulled off my fogged-up goggles, dried off and put on my warm-up suit, and sat with the other girls on my team.
My coach came over. Coach had curly red hair, and when she was mad, her face turned bright red. Right now she was holding her clipboard and a stopwatch, and she was glowing crimson.
“Burton, what the hell were you doing out there?”
I always think it’s funny when adults are clearly trying to control themselves, so I laughed. “What do you mean?”
She turned purple. “I mean, what the hell do you think you were doing? You came in a full two seconds later than you’ve been doing in practice.”
“You weren’t even trying. You sized up the competition and decided you didn’t have to try.”
I got defensive. “I won, who cares?”
She took a deep breath to steady herself and got right up into my face. “YOU should care, Burton. When you don’t have to work to beat the other girls, you race against yourself. That’s what this is. You should care. I don’t know why you don’t.”
She walked off to go time another race. My teammates immediately started in on me: “Oooooh, you are in trouble…”
But my coach was right. She had hit on a truth I’d only recently discovered about myself, and that was that I really didn’t care. I was 15 years old, and I was a good swimmer, and I did not give a shit about swimming. I didn’t give a shit about competing or rivalries or winning or team spirit or sports in general, and now that I knew that about myself, it was all over.
I’m not really sure how I came to this realization. I just remember being in the pool one day after school as usual, swimming laps. As I moved up and down the length of the pool, singing the Rent soundtrack (yes!) to myself in my head to pass the time, I suddenly had an entirely new thought, which was: Why am I doing this? I actually came to a halt in the water—that’s how powerful this new thought was. Why was I in a pool right then? Why was I spending every afternoon of my life at swim team practice? What was it for?
I started moving forward again, mulling it over. Was the competition aspect of the sport burning me out? Hm. No. I liked winning, but I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t actually mind losing at all; I only really liked winning because it made my team happy.
Was I on swim team because I thought it would help me stay in shape? Nope. At the time, I was actually worried about all the muscles I had from swimming; I thought maybe I’d grow up and have freakishly overdeveloped shoulders or something. (I worried about this a lot.)
I actually didn’t even like swim team, now that I thought about it. I didn’t like going to practice, and I didn’t like how the rubber swim caps made my brain feel like it was getting squeezed, and I thought our suits that year were really ugly. Coach was yelling at me more and more, and I was exhausted all the time, because, as a Mormon kid, I had to go to an early (6 AM!) church class called seminary every weekday morning, all four years of high school, and I was falling asleep in school and then going to swim practice and then staying at school so I could go to play practice, and then getting home and trying to do homework until midnight so I could get up at 4:30 AM and do it all over again. I used to actually cry, I was so tired.
The truth was, I was only on swim team because a bunch of friends were. Which isn’t bad in and of itself! Except also: swim team was its own special clique at school. There were several extremely popular older girls on the team, and I reveled in my association with them. Our team had special outfits to wear on days we had meets, and I really liked that everyone could see that I was a member of this clique full of popular girls and they weren’t. It turned out that the thing I liked best about swim team…was that it, um, excluded other people.
I stayed on the team because I was afraid of losing my direct contacts with cool and popular girls. Never mind the countless hours in the pool, never mind the (unintentionally) green hair and the sheer exhaustion of practice every day.
When I really thought about it, I wasn’t even interested in swimming, at all. At that point I had already also run track, played soccer, and taken gymnastics, throughout my childhood and into my teens. I hadn’t cared about any of those sports, either. I had only done them because my parents thought it would be a good idea, or because I wanted to be friends with girls on the teams.
Whoa. I had spent years of my life competing for awards I didn’t give a rip about. Some people put their trophies on shelves and hang plaques and ribbons on their walls. And that’s awesome! That means you’re proud of your accomplishments—you’ve worked for them and they mean something to you. But me? As a young kid, I threw my trophies and ribbons into a Rubbermaid container in our mildewy basement, sometimes cutting up an award ribbon to make a fancy satin dress for one of my Sylvanian Family dolls. I had never cared! What was I doing on the swim team? Wasn’t it about time to start doing what I really wanted to do with my time? Even if that just meant taking a nap after school sometimes, or reading a book I was actually interested in?
I finished out the year with the team, but I stopped after that. Once I’d had my little epiphany in the pool, I just couldn’t with sports anymore. When I told her I was quitting, my coach looked me up and down and said, “You’re good at swimming. What a waste.”
I felt guilty for a minute, but I am not sorry I quit—not even a little. It might feel to you right now like everyone on earth is in a sport, and like everyone is on some kind of team, like volleyball or basketball or tennis or soccer or something, but let me tell you: if you don’t enjoy playing sports, it is a wonderful thing to finally accept that and get hours upon hours of your life back.
It’s OK to not want to play. I know we’re supposed to learn how to be Team Players and feel a sense of community and learn Valuable Life Lessons from sports, but if you’re not interested in those things, it’s fine! Sports can feel incredibly important in high school, and to some people, they are. Here in America, it’s basically accepted that kids will grow up maladjusted if they’re not on a team. Well, I call bullshit! You can learn all those important lessons in other ways, too—from school or afterschool classes or cool adults or youth groups.
I am certainly not down on you if you like to be on a team, or like to play sports. Hell no, that’s great! More power to you! Sports can be fun and can help you develop as a person and they’re healthy etc.! I’m just saying, it is absolutely also all right to not be the least bit interested. It unnerves people, but it’s fine. You don’t have to play to be involved in life.
And maybe someday you’ll find a sport you actually do love—something you get excited about playing or doing, something you haven’t even tried yet. (But it’s also OK if you never, ever do!)
Ten years after breaking up with all sports, I was walking past a park near my apartment when I saw it: tons of bikes chained to a bike rack. Nearby, I saw a huge group of people in their 20s, none of them dressed in athletic clothes, screaming and yelling and running around playing kickball in the early summer evening. They were sliding in the dirt in their jeans and shit-talking and having the time of their lives. Well, I love kickball. I asked someone what was up, and she said it was an adult kickball league and that they played every Tuesday! No coaches, no practices, no matching T-shirts, no fees. Just this: anybody who wanted to play could show up.
It took 25 years, but I had finally found a sport I wanted to play. It didn’t matter if I was any good; it didn’t even matter whether I showed up on any given day. No pressure. Just playing outside with friends. Which I guess is what I wanted all along. ♦