Monday, September 20, 2010

Back Where I Come From - My Swimming Story

Around this time every year, I think back to my swimming history. Every time I am at Kenny Chesney concert and the song "Back Where I Come From" starts playing, I have the urge to call my friend and teammate Morgs. We bonded in college over Kenny Chesney and swimming. So today's lesson kids is my swimming story; it's gonna be long so grab your bowl of popcorn and a cold beer. Hope you enjoy it!

I think my "love affair with water" as Brad Paisley would put it began in the womb; yuppers I am going that far back! Apparently my mom ate a lot of tuna when she was pregnant, so maybe we can thank the fish or the mercury for my water connection. I was born at the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day, and in less than a month I was at my first swim meet. It's been ingrained in my brain for a while. Within 6 months, I was in those baby swim classes where they dunk you under water while giving your grandmothers heart attacks while they watch. Fast forward to age 8; I wanted to be on summer swim team but we were going on a month long trip across the US to Oregon, and I was going to miss the whole season :( As a consolation my dad tried really hard to find a motel with a pool each night after driving so I could keep on swimming.

The next summer at age 9, I finally got to do summer swim team! It was a blast! I wasn't very fast but I loved it! A few years later I started asking if I could do winter swimming, as my siblings had done. It was a huge commitment and my parents didn't want me to be that serious as I was in a lot of other activities. The compromise was a stroke clinic program that met once a week in the winter so I could stay in shape for the summer. I still asked each year if I could join the competitive winter team. I had lots of fun in the summer but I was never a star; I got the second or the third, but never the first. In 5th grade, I was not the one voted most likely to be an Olympic swimmer; that hurt. Even though I knew there were much better people, I still wanted that.

Fast forward to my junior year of high school. I was dating a guy who was a swimmer, I went to a few of his meets, and I was hooked! This is what real competitive swimming was I want in now and, you know what, I also want to swim in college! Bold statements from a summer swimmer, I know! Luckily now that I was an employee, I could get a discount on the year-round team and I knew the coaches so I was in. I worked hard but I was in a dead-end group. Very few advanced to the next group level from where I was. I made the cut off time to go to a travel meet my senior year and had tons of fun even though I didn't feel like I belonged; all the other kids were from the faster group. The coach of the higher group allowed me to swim in the mornings occasionally, and I loved those days, but I never got asked to move up. Finally in the spring I asked to move up and was told, "It's about time." Oh you mean I could have been swimming here all along and I just had to ask? I had hoped to be noticed...darn...

My senior year I was recruited by some Division 3 schools that I applied to because I checked off the box that said swimming. But what I really wanted was University of Maryland College Park or Towson University. I was in contact with both coaches and sent them my times. The College Park coach was nice but said I was too slow but they would be happy to help me find some D3 schools. I said thanks, printed the nice but rejection letter, and posted it on my closet door. I also spoke with Towson. I was in contact with an assistant coach and the head coach; the assistant coach nicely suggested that I take another year of USS swimming before trying to go onto the Towson team. The head coach said there was space here for me if I wanted it and I did. This chance made my decision, I was going to Towson University because the swim coach was going to give me a chance; that was all I wanted. Oh, and Towson is Division 1 just like College Park.

I got there and was way out of my league! These people were significantly faster than me but I was going to show that I would still work hard. After the first two weeks, I was cut. I went out and got my ears pierced for my 2nd holes as a consolation. But there was still hope…there was a condition…I could come and swim on my own until the Alumni Meet and would be reevaluated there. You mean there is still a chance I can be on the team? Deal! I will be here swimming on my own! And I did for about a week; at that point we had proved ourselves and were permitted back on the team! I didn't have to wait until the Alumni Meet!

I was still slow. I got lapped every practice. I measured my successes in getting lapped fewer times or getting closer to what the interval was supposed to be. It was ok because I was there and I was still part of the team, even if I didn't score any points. I was a lane one all-star! I didn't get much attention and that was ok because I was there and I was swimming. My love affair with water continued! I ran, I swam, I lifted weights, and I was sore, but it was all worth it when my times would get slightly faster and closer to my peers at the meets, when I was coming in last by 10 seconds instead of 20. Progress was all I asked for. One day in the fall my coach put a kick set on the board, apparently no one was taking it seriously so he scratch the set and told us we had 20x100free on the 1:20 and if we missed the interval we were kicked out! Yikes!! I worked too hard to be here to be kicked out again! While this was an easy interval to many, it was not for me. Well, I made every single one of those. Although I think the last 3 or 4 only got 1 second of rest. That set proved more to myself than a kick set did. It gave me a bit more confidence that I could be there. Not everyone made the interval.

I swam the 200 backstroke a lot as it was really the only spot for me. At the end of the season, I was a last minute selection for the Conference Team! My hard work paid off! Surprisingly, it was the backstroke; I was taken to be a possible person in a relay for backstroke. I ended up not being in the relay, but the experience was fabulous! Although I never felt like I deserved to be there, there were people who were not taken that were better than me. At the end of my freshman year of college I got my cartilage pierced as another present to myself that I survived my freshman year of college swimming, something I think many people counted me out of.

I came back sophomore year excited to not be the lowest one of the totem pole! Except, well, I still was...I got cut to the "junior team." Sigh. Well at least I was swimming with a group and didn't have to swim on my own. We did a lot of aerobics classes but we were there. Eventually we were all integrated again. Every practice, especially during kick sets, I looked at that record board and saw my friends’ names there but not mine. Many got records in their first year on the team. I wanted my name there but sadly that wasn't going to happen. This year I started to get somewhat competitive in the 200 free. I also started making the intervals more regularly and didn't always get last at the dual meets. Ability-wise I still didn't quite fit in. At the end of my sophomore year I was again chosen for the conference team. I again didn't feel I deserved to be there, I was chosen over some seniors. I was honored but felt horrible that I again knocked out people who maybe should have been there. I didn't realize that my coach had a plan and was thinking about the future of the program and possibly my future. In May, my coach told me I had earned myself some scholarship money! Really You are going to give me money for what I love to do anywayIt was only $500, just enough to cover books, but it was definitely something. I walked a little taller that day! I was a real NCAA Division 1 college athlete.

Junior year became a whirlwind. I was finally in the mix of things and earning some respect as a contributing member of the team. One weekend in October, we had back-to-back meets on Friday and Saturday, or was it Saturday and Sunday, anywho back-to-back meets. My coach decided, at the last minute, that this would be a good early practice run for the back-to-back-ness of the conference meet…it was exciting! I would get to shave my legs mid-season and wear my Aquablade! Yup, that is what I was excited about, oh, and the workouts were taper-easy! Well, it worked! I had two outstanding 200 free swims! I broke the 2-minute mark for the first time, and did it two days in a row! We also learned that I swim better when I am not in the center lane; I get kind of intimidated there. Stick me on the sides where no one expects anything, and that's where I do my best. I was keeping up and, in some cases, beating girls from Duke and William and Mary! I was also on par with my teammates. After that, my coach decided that it was time for a go at the 500 free. At one of the next meets, I did the 500 free ,and led my heat until the last 75 or so; the girl that was a couple lanes over made her move, I had been going all out, and the sun from the window was right in my eyes so I didn't see her. My coach was disappointed but my teammates said the time was good for my first time swimming it; I really didn't know. The time was only a few seconds slower than the people who normally swam it. Therefore, for the rest of junior year and all of senior year, I was consistently in the 200 and 500 free. I started practicing with the D-team (distance team). I took risks this year in training. We had a set of 200s on the 2.10 or 2.15, I can't remember which, and I just know I was the last one standing (swimming) in my lane and that was a good feeling! I continued to look at that record board every day and every meet. At every championship meet, we rewrote the record board but I wasn't the one breaking any records. I was very happy for my teammates who did; it’s nice to look at the board and see it full of "us," our team, not them, the graduated folks. Junior year ended unremarkably; I again went to the conference meet. This time I felt like I had earned my spot; unfortunately, my performance was nothing remarkable. I bonked on my 500 free and the 200 was so-so. I still had yet to earn my team any points at the meet, but I was a cheerleader and was quite happy for those who did.

Senior year was difficult, I had internships, and they definitely discourage you from doing a sport, but I had scholarship money! This year it doubled to $1000 and that was exciting. The education department cannot take that away from you! Unfortunately, this made me late to every practice, as I had to drive from Howard County to Towson. I didn't always feel that I got in as good a workout, coming in part of the way through, and I didn't get to swim with my teammates as often. Sometimes, I was on my own. This year, we did not go on a winter training trip; that was pretty disappointing. We instead swam at Loyola Blakefield High School, for a change of scenery. These were 4 one hour practices...most notably was the 21x500s on the 6.30 where every 3rd one was fast. I had to try and eat a Powerbar in the middle of the workout, because I got hungry. That was only the main set; we still had a kick set afterwards! On another day, we had a 10,000 for time. How to do you count that, you say? I counted from 100, backwards 4 times. I finished in an hour and fifty-seven minutes, then went to the mall and bought myself shoes. I deserved it. Being able to complete these ridiculous sets gave me the confidence that I could do anything, and I got new shoes too! During January, I had another turning point set; this one was 4x75 easy/drill of butterfly and then a 200 all out fast. We did this with each stroke. We were spread out, so there were only a few of us in each lane. As a kid, I swam butterfly on my summer team because I was willing and others were not. In college, we had good butterfliers and, with so many people, I never practiced butterfly very well. I thought I may have looked like a drowning dolphin when I tried, except for this time. This time, I kept up with the butterfliers and posted a time some people only did in meets, 2:19, and it did not hurt! I got so excited that I told my coach I needed to swim it in a meet before the end of the season. Really, who asks to do the 200 fly? This gal! He nodded and said that maybe when we swim Loyola, that was the meet where everyone did off strokes, so the blowout wouldn't look so bad and that would be our senior home meet. Sounded like a plan! Every week or so, I still reminded him I wanted to do the 200 fly and he still said, we will see...

The senior meet came and it was such a bittersweet experience. You know the pain your body has been feeling for the last 3.5 years is getting closer to ending, but at the same time you are going to miss the pain and you don't know what life will be like without it. They announce the seniors and say nice stuff, then you stand with your parents and people take lots of pictures. Eventually, it actually is time to swim. There were some people that shaved and tapered for this meet, those not attending the conference meet. When it was time for the 200 fly, I got some strange looks, but I was so ready! I had my outside lane, 2, where no one expects anything of you. I raced. I took long pushes with strong kicking off of every wall; it hurt a bit more than it did in practice, but the time was also 3 seconds faster and I was WITH the butterfliers! I didn't flop out! I think I even placed well in the heat! I had a new possible event for champs this year. It was pretty surprising to everyone and very exciting.

Fast-forward a little more into taper season, and eventually we got to the big Colonial Athletic Association meet at George Mason University. This was it; this was the end of my competitive swimming career. I wasn't ready to let go. I was signed up for the 800 free relay, 500fr, 200fr, 100fr, and 200fly. I would only be doing three of the individual events. Which ones will it be?

The week leading up to the big meet, we practiced the relay start. Even though it is a long race, those starts can make a difference. If you jump too early, than you have disqualified your team; if you jump too late, you are wasting time. For some reason, I was having a lot of trouble getting it just right. I think I was starting to worry the coach. He started asking if he needed to get someone else in there. I said no; I would get it right. My very last time, I practiced and it was spot on. I didn't do it again until the race. The first evening of competition included the 800 free relay. I had previously swam the 800 free relay at ECACs last year, but the stakes weren't quite as high. We used an unconventional strategy for our relay. Usually your two faster folks are first, and the last and the slower swimmers compete in the middle two legs. He lined us up slowest to fastest. The first girl went, and since she was going against most teams second fastest person, it put us in 7th and made it look like she was going slow; upon learning of her time later, it was quite clearly a lifetime best for her and was by no means slow! As she was coming in, myself and a teammate were deciding which side I was going to drag off of. Both of the lanes next to me were swimming close to the lane line, so I could use this to my advantage. We decided to use the right side. I dove in and dragged with long kicks off the wall and my arms going strong. I moved us up a couple more places. The next girl went and did the same thing. Then, our anchor came and, wow, was she fast! Each of us was about a second or two faster than the previous person, until the anchor; she was like 3-5 seconds faster and just passed the remaining teams until is was just her and the Delaware team. We got second! I was going to get a medal!

Many of my teammates for years had always walked away with several medals. I had never had the opportunity to swim at night, because I never placed in the top 16, and I was never chosen for the relay teams. Finally, I was going to get to stand on that podium! My coach gave me a big hug, knowing that I had worked hard for four years for this. Some people may say, "oh its just a relay," but for me this was my Olympics. I finally felt like a college swimmer ,and I really did deserve my place on the team. Not only did we get second, we got medals and stood on the podium and my name was finally going to be on the record board!!!!! We surpassed the previous 800 free relay record by several seconds! Unfortunately, I wasn't going to get to look at that all year, but I made it. I was going to graduate, and feel like I finally made a contribution to the team, with something that would last! It was what I wanted for so long but I wasn't really sure I was going to make it.

This was one of the happiest days of my life. When we went upstairs at the end of the session, our parents, family, and friends greeted us. My parents were ecstatic; I don't think they ever thought I would be standing on the podium, but the parent who looked the happiest was the mom of our most accomplished athlete on the team. He would be going to Olympic trials in a few months. His mom, with tears, gave me a big hug and told me how happy and proud she was to watch me progress over these four years. Well, that was the icing on the cake; another parent cared about my swimming, as much as their own successful child.

The next two swims of mine were unremarkable, again. I thought that momentum of the relay would naturally carry over into my 500 and 200 free, but it did not. On that last day, my coach said my free hadn't been looking so hot, so I should do the 200 fly as the last event instead of the 100 free. That sounded good to me. I was a bit nervous, as this was my last swim of my college swimming career and I was swimming an event I had only raced one other time before, and now, I was doing it at a championship meet! I wanted to go out on a high note; this was it. It was a very bittersweet feeling. I was in the end lane closest to my team and coach. My coach reminded me this was it and to give it all I had. That was the plan; I went after it, and it hurt! On the last length, my arms were failing me; it didn't hurt this bad last time; actually, it felt easy last time. As I was finishing, I was so afraid I was going to disappoint that my arms hurt and were barely moving. As I came to the flags, meaning I only had one or two strokes left, I was thinking, “this is it;” these are the last strokes of my swimming career and then I touched. I was tired. I paused before looking at the board, afraid my last swim wasn't going to be a good one, but I was pleasantly surprised. The board said 2:12, meaning I had dropped 4 seconds from only a couple of weeks ago. That was a great way to end things. I hopped out, and wasn't planning on cooling down, because I was done. My meet was over. Or so I thought.

My coach found me and promptly informed me that I was in the top 16 for the 200 fly. I needed a good cool down as I would be swimming again tonight. What?! I have never made it back at night and then I did in the event I really don't even know how to swim. That wasn't actually my last swim...I am actually going to score individual points for my

I made sure to get in a good cool down, as I was quite sore and really wasn't sure how I was going to swim this again because, well, that really, really, hurt. I got a good lunch and then went back to hotel, where I tried to relax with my legs propped up on some pillows. Really, truly, I couldn't relax; this was a big deal. They would be honoring seniors tonight, the last night always draws the biggest crowd, and I still didn't know what I was doing. I came back to the pool, nervous as ever. A few people tried to calm me down, and while I appreciate it, it didn't work. The whole event was a perfect storm. I was in lane two, my lane, as my coach reminded me, outside smoke, and from there they never see you coming. I was on the same side as the stands; I could hear and see the parents and alumni. I nervously climbed up onto the starting blocks, reminding myself that this time, it really was the last one. This was my time to shine.

I dove in and could feel the adrenaline surging. I took long, strong, fast butterfly kicks off of every wall. After the first 50, I couldn't see anyone when I was underwater. Did someone false start and no one bothered to stop me because I wasn't going to have energy to do this again? Everytime I surfaced to breathe, it was loud! I mean, really, really loud! Usually when you are swimming, you hear a dull roar when you surface, but the dull roar was when my head was underwater; it was loud when I came up. What was going on? There must be a really good race, going on in the middle of the pool. I gave that swim everything I had, and finished strong with lots of cheering and surprised looks. My coach was jumping up and down. I went a 2:10.99, a significant drop from this morning. Oh, that really good race that was going on was mine. It was the battle of the outside lanes; apparently I was stroke for stroke with someone on the other side of the pool, and unfortunately she out-touched me by one-one hundredth of a second. It was ok, because I proved myself. This was only the third time I had ever done the 200 fly, and it was the best ever. I went out on the highest of highs. This had been the meet of my life, a meet four years in the making for me. It made every ache, pain, and cry worth it.

The day before we left for the meet I had my "away message" on my AIM (AOL Instant Message) "five and a half years ago i decided i wanted to swim in college after never competing year round....and amazingly enough that happened....this crazy journey finishes up this week! we leave for our conference championships tomorrow....leave me some good luck love!!" This was a pretty standard type of message. I didn't expect the response I got from my friend Adam "hey cindy i would leave you some luck but luck has absolutely nothing with who you are or more importantly where you are you are an inspiration to those who start off behind the curve and a testament to will power and dedication so i guess all i have to say is be who you are and kick butt and overachieve one more time" Adam's words meant so much to me. I printed the message he wrote to me on 2/16/2004 and taped it up in my hotel room. I read it every day multiple times to get me pumped up and ready to compete. This message had a lot to do with my success that weekend. Thank you Adam!

A couple months later at the end of the year picnic my coach selected me as the "unsung hero." I was called up and was totally not expecting it. I don't generally get awards. It was totally awkward for me. He stood there and said really nice things about my work ethic and everyone was looking at me, do I smile? cry? and then I totally knocked the microphone over by bumping into the speaker podium, graceful I know. My boyfriend was there, my parents, and my grandparents. It was a proud day and sad because it really was over.

My swimming experience has given me a lot of mental strength. It has helped me tough out new races in triathaloning. I emailed my coach when I found out my father had cancer and he reminded me that I could tough out anything, after making it through my four years of swimming. He was right. I have met wonderful people and I look forward to seeing them every year at our alumni meet. We have a shared bond of suffering and success. Yesterday was the 2010 alumni meet and banquet. The program is really going places. and while I could never keep up with the current team. I would like to think I have contributed in some way to their current success. My coach always assures me that he will still let anyone swim if they want to be there bad enough.

Thank you to may parents for coming to every meet and supporting me, and allowing me to follow my crazy dream to swim in college.

Thank you to my then boyfriend, and now hubby, for supporting me and telling me I can do butterfly and that I would get my name on the record board before I graduated. Thank you for coming to all my meets and being my silent supporter. Also thank you for all the massages, my arms and legs really needed it.

Thank you to my roommate of all four years for putting up with my complaints of aches and pains, coming to meets, and my crazy schedule with early mornings. I am so glad we got to live together for four years.

Thank you to my teammates for your support and not letting me give up. Thank you for not getting too mad when I was too slow and in your way. Thank you for making me feel apart of the team even though I really didn't fit in. Thank you to all my secret psychers. I still have most of it and it meant a lot to me.

Thank you to my coach for giving me a chance. You didn't have to and I will appreciate and cherish those four years for my entire life.

Towson Swimming is going places and I am so happy I was able to be apart of it.

Go Tigers!


  1. Thanks for sharing this story. I've always been in awe of your dedication and the way you run after your goals. :) You do it now, too! The next post will be about how you are kicking running's butt. ;)

    Anyway, that's what it's all about. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Cindy -- After reading this, I wanted to leave you a note to let you know how I remember you as a teammate, because it differs greatly from how you saw yourself.

    I think it's interesting that you felt you "didn't belong" for so long. I may not have been there your freshman year, but I never once thought of you as anything BUT a teammate. Even and especially in our 'Junior Team' phase. Your times weren't the determining factor in being a part of the team, it was your attitude. You were the hardest worker in that pool and always had something positive to bring to the table (even if it annoyed me because I didn't understand how you could be so happy after such crappy practices!). You brought so many great (and arguably, more important) qualities to that team beyond points scored, and I always saw you as more of a leader than many of the individuals that got first place every meet. You were someone that I was genuinely thrilled for every time you did well because you truly deserved it based on your work ethic, and kind demeanor. You were the epitome of a team player and should be proud of your accomplishments, big or small. They don't go unnoticed :o)

    -Christine ('Flood')

    PS...I'm thoroughly impressed with your recall of some of the details, I totally forgot about Junior Team! However, the sets you put on there that I was present for, made me cringe...

  3. So you made me cry a little! Great story Cindy and just so you know you were one of the things that got me through my first mini-mester at Towson b/c you were always ready to go to practice when i just wanted to sleelp:)

  4. Well said Christine!

  5. Awesome story Cindy!!! This is a prime example of "You can accomplish whatever you put your mind AND efforts to."

    As we used to say at PDR... Outside Smoke, Inside Joke!

  6. Cindy,
    What a great story. Thanks so much for sharing it. It is
    no wonder why you make such a good teacher. Your inspiration is wonderful. You sure are a true example of the old saying that you should NEVER give up and if you want something bad enough you have to keep working at it and good things will come

  7. Cindy, I was not on the swim team but have to say having someone like you on the team would have made any team better. It is not the ones who are the stars that make the team, but everyone who shows up and works hard everyday and puts everything they have into the team. Thanks for the words and I wish we had someone like you on the lacrosse team when I played.

  8. Wow Cindy! I too am in awe how many details you remember and Flood really sums things up. Your story will be a great inspiration to all the current swimmers, it's a reminder that with little steps one can make great strides.

    As hard as it was (thanks for the Loyola Blakefield High reminder), I'd go back in a heartbeat!


  9. Cindy,

    Good morning.

    Congratulations on living the American dream via your tenure at Towson University. Athletes from all talent levels can learn from your experience as you demonstrated perseverance, mental toughness and being a team player.

    You earned every ounce of successs and that die hard attitude will take you far in life and your triathlon career.

    As a three-time Ironman finisher and walk-on under Coach Ray in 1995, I can relate to the many obstacles you face while balancing training schedule, family committments, profession and the like.

    Here's to wishing you, your teammates, your classmates and the TU Swimming & Diving Alumni the best in their future endeavours.

    John M. Vargo
    Personal Trainer/CCS
    Lifebridge Health & Fitness
    Class of 1997

  10. Cindy, thank you for sharing your experience. I recall similar feelings when I began my swimming career (alongside John Vargo!) at Towson. I look back fondly on my experience at Burdick Hall, and I'm glad you were able to enjoy the time spent with teammates both in and out of the water. I wish you good luck in your future endeavors, though your tenacity will most certainly help you accomplish anything you wish!

    Alex Milovic (Class of 1999)