There come moments in your life, where a stop sign suddenly appears in front of you. It’s a clear stop sign and you’re at a crossroads. At this particular point I turned the ignition to stop the once, roaring engine. A roaring engine that won me my first national title in the summer of 2016 after a disastrous Olympic Trials. But when I looked up and saw that number one next to my name, I wasn’t filled with emotions of emphatic joy, it was a cold, bittersweet realisation that I was done. My swimming career was over and I knew it deep down in my gut.
I walked upstairs to the congratulations of my coach and teammates. And as my coach started looking to the future and what was next, the whole time I sat there, thinking what was really next for me. After that summer nationals I continued to train for five weeks on my own for the Paris World Cup, a meet that would be my first and only meet representing the GB National Team. Those five weeks were the hardest yards of my swimming career. I would come in some days and just look at the pool and leave. I evaluated my motivations and realised that my Olympic Dream was over, I was not willing to commit another four years to the sport I loved. The night before my last race I told my coach it was my last. He understood.
Upon finishing my last race a burden of pressure was lifted off my shoulders. All those feelings of stress evaporated and I was filled with euphoria that this was all over. It was strange. I knew the euphoria wouldn’t last though and I prepared quickly to fill up my schedule to make it as busy as possible to block the emotions that were to come. The emotions I wasn’t ready to handle. Emotions that no athlete wants to feel. A feeling of a complete lack of direction and powerlessness.
During the three months after I completed my last race, I found ways to avoid the pool. I even found ways to avoid exercise altogether. I made excuses. I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. The exercises connected the dots to swimming and that would bubble the emotions to the surface. I was already struggling with my identity and who I was at this time. I wasn’t ready to start feeling everything. My identity for the last 14 years was swimming. I was known as an athlete. A man on a mission with rippling muscles and an incredible aerobic system. When those attributes start to fade, it highlights the loss of identity in yourself and you start to become lost. You are now blind, walking in the dark hoping not to trip and fall down the mountain you have climbed. But tripping and falling is inevitable and necessary as a new mountain is to be climbed. Once you can accept that, you stop falling down the mountain. You slowly but surely pick yourself up and make your way down it, remembering and revisiting the lessons you learnt, the values you developed, the people you met and the experiences you had.
There will be and are moments that will bring pain and discomfort. I am happy to admit that I have sobbed in confronting these emotions. I remember looking at my best times, and thought, that’s as fast as I’ll ever go. I started to discover all those emotions I had bottled up and stashed away. I started taking the lid off one by one of those bottles. I’m not done. There are more bottles to open and more emotions to process. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary. I want to move on from swimming. I want to take my life in a whole new different direction using the knowledge and skills I have acquired. I won’t be able to do that, until I’m fully free and unshackled from the emotions that will slow me down unless they are dealt with. So here’s to more bottles, to the opportunity of a new path and to an opportunity to develop my identity. An identity that isn’t connected to swimming but an identity that represents me.