A Retirement Letter To The Sport

Courtesy: Olivia Parks

From the six-year-old in a fabric Speedo cap with goggles too big for her face and the woman she became we bid you goodnight, swimming. You watched my first belly-flop dive transform into the final stroke of my career. Now, after fifteen years, cheers to alarms set before dawn for hesitant leaps into frigid pools. Obsessing over the clock, down to the very hundredth of a second. Moments of helplessly laying on deck, staring up at the sky with legs dangling over the pool’s edge in a desperate attempt to gasp for air. The crawl to class from exhaustion and seemingly permanent soreness. The stench of chlorine seeping through pores to the chagrin of fellow classmates. Perpetually raccooned eyes from goggle burn. And, the ever-so classic rejection of plans: “Sorry I can’t, I have practice.”

Helplessly in love with you from the age of six, you are the life I chose. Dedicating not only my body to you, but my heart and soul. Hours, days, and years devoted to staring at that incessant black line. Asserting my entire existence into training with a hypoxic gas. Nevertheless, nothing about you is simple. Among the many wins, I have had my fair share of losses. The highly anticipated last lap, hitting the wall, then checking the scoreboard. . . only to be flooded by utter devastation. All I can say to this is: there has never been and will never be a boy who can break my heart like you. There have been months in which you were my greatest enemy. Still, in a chlorine trance, I came back.

In spending my youth perpetually chasing down endless lane-lines, I proudly look back with no regrets. For fifteen years, I have relied on you for structure, confidence, and friendships. Before and after school, with absolute consistency, there you were: waiting for me. Of everything you’ve done for me, you introduced me to my teammates and coaches: the people I love. Because of you, I have been fortunate enough to work with Coach Marko Djordjevic, Coach David Marsh, Coach Joey Gracia, and Coach Kirk Kumbier who have made monumental impacts on my life on and off the deck. Most of all, you led me to Coach Abi Liu and her partner KR Liu. No words can describe the influence these two women have had on me. All I can do is strive to live by their example every day. These are the people who made every grueling set, post-race heartache, and the all-encompassing hardships of life worthwhile. For that, I am forever grateful.

However, in the last three years, the dream of completing my career of you became more like a memory. Dealing with the following matters since high school, you were still by my side. Despite a panic attack disorder, severe depression and anxiety, the trials and tribulations of psychiatric medications, and an eating disorder that landed me in an outpatient program, I cling to you for dear life.

In the wee morning hours before UCSD left for the 2019 Division II NCAA Championship, I laid helpless in an Urgent Care bed at 3 am Amidst one of the best seasons of my career, there I was: hyperventilating and trembling from a vicious panic attack. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the only time I end up here. Come 5 am, a few hours prior to our flight to Indiana, I was discharged. Some may think the pressure of you induced this episode; but it’s impossible to blame the genetic inevitable. Completely exhausted and drained, I got on that plane by 8 am, motivated by the desire to compete for the team I love. Two days later, I stood alongside three other teammates on the second place podium for the 200 Medley relay; I became an All-American athlete that day. As I received my trophy, the same question I’ve asked for years looped through my mind: What is wrong with me?

The priority of you got me up in the morning, forcing me to seek treatment and hold myself accountable. Regardless, uncontrolled galactic highs and profound lows persistently cycled without definitive reason. What is wrong with me? continued to play on repeat. Just five months shy of the final victory lap of my career, we sat side-by-side in silence, listening and processing my clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The dream of you began to slip away faster than ever. Feeling isolated and ashamed, the unconditional love of family, coaches, and teammates overpowered those initial thoughts. To everyone reading this, it’s okay not to be okay. Being an athlete, in any sport, is so difficult even without life’s afflictions or curveballs. That being said, embrace asking for help and please, hold yourself as the priority. Jordan Phillips— team captain, my roomie of four years, and ultimate best friend— gifted me my dearest memory of you after my last practice. Still in the pool, Jordan told my weepy self to follow her. Confused as ever, I obliged and stared at her as she settled underwater in a corner of Triton Pool. Then, she pointed out beyond my gaze. When I turned around, there it was, simple, symmetrical, and stunning: an empty 25 yard by 50-meter pool. We sat there on the bottom, silently admiring how this concrete hole has given us a world of possibilities. By the hand of circumstances we would have never fathomed nor predicated, this unexpected version of my finish line was met at UCSD’s Senior Day. After everything, I decided not to compete. Instead, I celebrated our decade and a half of memories together. If anything, this is my final race; the embodiment of all of the chlorine burn, sweat, and tears leading up to this moment. Even after my tan-lines fade, the athlete mindset you’ve ingrained in me has changed my narrative: this disorder isn’t a hindrance, just another challenge to overcome.

Despite the titles, school records, and awards that accumulated in my athletic portfolio over the years, none of them compare to the opportunity Coach David Marsh and Coach Joey Gracia granted me: the ability to give back to you. Coaching the kids of Coronado Swim Team Elite has completely reshaped not only how I see you, but myself. Being around younger athletes as one who has just finished her career spins a fresh outlook on what it means to be a young person in a sport like you. Resonating with their excitement, joys, and silliness is reminiscent of how I was at that age: the possibilities unlimited and the “need for speed” boundless. Without you, I would have never met them: my little heroes. Therefore, I am most thankful, rather immeasurably grateful, for this aspect of you.

I say good night, because I’ll see you in the morning. I won’t be putting on a cap and goggles tomorrow but the qualities you have forged will follow me for life. Such as a permanent internal clock doomed to consider 7:00 am as ‘sleeping-in’ on a Sunday morning. The certainty to give 110% to expectations or tasks in any future career. Understanding how to allocate time wisely. How else would balancing coaching, being a full-time scholar-athlete at UCSD, and somewhat of a social life be possible? Although at times met with absolute disdain, appreciating a body that has allowed me to achieve goals I once considered impossible. Looking back at everything I have done and been through; then confidently looking forward to everything I will do.

With that, goodnight from my six-year-old self in the fabric Speedo cap and goggles too big for my face and the woman I am now. After everything we’ve been through, I owe it all to you.

Thank you; I love you.

Olivia Parks. Photo: Jack Spitzer