We visited The Grand Canyon a few years ago. It was absolutely magnificent. We arrived at night, there was a full moon over the canyon and it was breathtaking. The kids were young at the time. They looked at the canyon, looked at me and said “does our hotel have a pool?” Just another moment where I thought to myself “I can’t wait until you girls have kids!:”
At the time I couldn’t connect The Grand Canyon to a pool, My perspective has shifted.
We often hear about plateaus in swimming. Parents of younger children find it impossible to believe that it can happen to their own child. Some nod their head, pretending that they understand. Some will politely disagree. Others are downright arrogant in their denial. But in the end, for the vast majority of swimmers it is just that – denial – because it is going to happen.
The first several years of swimming it is just like being at The Grand Canyon. It’s absolutely beautiful at the top – it is also beauty in the pool. No one wants to get too close to the edge so kids look down from afar – in the pool time drops are huge and all but guaranteed . As they get older they become curious about what is down there. They start to get closer and closer to the edge, daring themselves to look down – same thing happens in the pool, time drops continue but the increments get smaller. And then you reach a certain age and it is like running to the edge and jumping to the bottom of the canyon. Only to look up and have a voice say “I will see you at the top”. And in a hushed tone “good luck”.
I, like all other parents thought Grace would drop time forever. I thought people were crazy when they insisted this wasn’t the case. I’ll go so far as to say I thought kids who added time at 14 and 15 just weren’t working that hard. Or their heads weren’t in the game. It had to be something they were doing. And we were doing every thing right. So it wouldn’t happen to us.
I just looked back on many of my posts from a year ago this time. Grace’s toes were literally curled around the edge of the canyon. She came out of the Holiday Champs meets with great times, dangerously close to sectionals cuts. I was certain it would happen the next meet. Or the one right after that. And when it didn’t happen I chalked it up to the training program. It would have to wait until Spring Champs, when she was tapered. It’s easy to guess what happened. She didn’t drop time then either. Maybe the taper didn’t work. Perhaps the $400 suit I bought her was too big. Or cursed. Maybe she didn’t practice enough. And so she moved up a group. It didn’t matter, I told myself. She is a better long course swimmer than short. This summer would be her time to shine. Yeah, no…not then either. We were running out of excuses. She wasn’t happy with the group she was with and we changed teams.
At this point pessimism was on my side. I knew she wouldn’t get those sectional cuts at the first meet. She had too much change over the last year and it was going to take some time. She also had some technical issues that need ironed out. Again, more excuses with no magic solution.
The truth of the matter, she hasn’t dropped time but for a few races here and there in over a year. And while it totally sucks it is also the norm. It gets easier over time.
As a parent, I spent a lot of time at the bottom of the canyon. I cried, I made excuses, drank wine, cried more, consulted with friends, coaches and friends who are coaches. I read, researched and cried some more. And in the end, I still don’t have any answers. I don’t know how this happens, how to make it better, how to prevent it and most importantly how to make it go away. It’s really hard. No joke, it just sucks.
Grace had a rough year. She cried. Wanted to quit. Got pissed. Hated me for making her do it. Changed teams. And then she became happy again.
The single most important thing that keeps her going is that she is happy. She likes being a swimmer. I think the kids talk a lot more than the parents about these plateaus because she is okay with it. She would love to drop time in a few key races. I pray to the swim gods nightly about it. But she doesn’t dwell on it. She works hard in practice, loves her coach and has great friends – she has climbed about half way back up the canyon at this point. I am getting better too. I watch her swim now with a sense of calm that I haven’t had in a long time. I left the last meet smiling and happy. And so did Grace. I’m slowly becoming optimistic.
I’m asked from time to time for advice on how to deal with it. I really wish I had an answer because I have to go through this two more times. I can’t pend the next years stressed like I spent the last year. I can tell you what worked. Talking to Grace when she wanted to talk. Not talking to her when she didn’t. Giving her the freedom to quit if she wanted to, all the while hoping she wouldn’t. I quit harping on results in races or goal times. And I became a professional timer so as to avoid the annoying chatter of well meaning parents. My other two kids are doing really well and I did insist that Grace act happy for them. This became a non-negotiable. Changing teams made Grace happy. Ask me in 6 months if it made her a better swimmer.
The one bit of advice I would give to parents with younger kids? Don’t believe your child is special and immune from these plateaus. There are a few swimmers Sarah’s age (13) who have their toes curled around the edge of the canyon but their parents (and the swimmers) are certain they are going to the Olympics. They very well may but only if they can survive the coming years. I have seen some pretty arrogant swimmers fall hard. They are usually the ones who don’t get up.
Only time will tell what will happen to any of my girls in the sport of swimming. I would kill for a crystal ball but for now all I have to go on are my special prayers to the swim gods. Parents, make sure your kids are happy. It is the single thing that has gotten us through thus far. I also decided to breathe. This is one of those times we are reminded “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
If you have seen an actual plateau, they are beautiful. Just like The Grand Canyon. It’s hard to find the beauty in swimming. But it’s there. We just have to look a little harder for it.
Grace has a meet this weekend. And I’m just going to breathe.
(Sophie at three decided to throw a tantrum at the Grand Canyon- like all good three year olds do).