Whenever I am asked to describe myself, the first word that comes to mind is “athlete.” Though I am now a varsity college swimmer, my love of athletics began a little differently: with soccer and basketball. I started playing soccer at four years old, and without quite understanding why, I fell in love with competition.
I loved the feeling of running as fast as I possibly could to make a play, learning footskills, making successful defensive tackles, scoring goals and most of all, being on a team. When I was in fourth grade, a group of players split off to join a U10 girls’ travel soccer league, and suddenly I had 14 other girls who became my family.
From a young age, we all bought into what it meant to be a team: We were a true unit, friends on and off the field. I always felt excited to go to practice and get better with my teammates, and I know that they felt the same way. I felt (and still feel) at home on a soccer field with my shin guards and a muddy pair of cleats on my feet. I consider the girls on that team, the majority of whom I played with until I graduated high school, as some of my best friends in the whole world. Soccer taught me what it meant to work hard: what it felt like to be a part of a team and to love something to my core.
In first grade, along with many of the girls on my soccer team, I began playing in our town basketball league. Basketball was a very different beast, and it did not come naturally to me. Though I did not have the prettiest technique or the sharpest skills, I remember being that kid who went after it with everything that she had, even if that meant stealing the ball from the point guard and missing the breakaway layup in dramatic fashion (One time the ball went all the way over the backboard and hit the fire alarm…).
In seventh grade, when I tried out for the modified team for the first time, the coach point blank said to me that my skills were not good enough to be on the team, but that I had made it because I was a fighter. Though that was a tough thing for my 12-year-old self to hear, it made me buckle down and dedicate myself to getting better at the game in a way that, as a naturally strong and fast kid, I had not had to before.
I loved basketball in such a different way than I loved soccer—it was high-intensity and fast and made me feel strong. There’s nothing in the world as satisfying as draining a three or making a smart steal on defense. I made the varsity team my sophomore year and ended up being a starter that year as well. It was something that I knew I had worked for and was proud of, and despite being on a team that basically never won a game, I relished playing and knowing that I left everything I had on the court. Basketball taught me how to be gritty, how to deal with and learn from losing and how to work above and beyond to get better.
I joined a summer swim team when I was nine years old. Swimming was my first experience with an “individual” sport—though I never quite felt it was truly individual, it was different to be racing completely on my own. My little thoroughly-competitive self thrived in that environment, especially because swimming really did come naturally to me. I knew how to work hard, and I loved to go fast. I was obsessed with feeling successful and knowing that I had crushed my personal best or touched someone out at the wall.
While the individual aspect was incredible, I also found joy in being part of a team in a different way. I can’t articulate the euphoria that you feel when you see a teammate who has put everything into swimming for months crack a smile when they see their time up on the board. I joined the varsity swim team in eighth grade, and even though it kept me from playing soccer on my high school team (both were fall sports, and I continued to play travel soccer year round), I loved it and I loved my team with everything I had. Varsity swimming had such a positive impact on me and my leadership skills, led me to make the decision to swim in college—one of the best decisions I think that I have ever made.
Swimming at the college level has meant the world to me. I have developed and nurtured my love for swimming in an even deeper way than I did before. It’s a big transition to move from swimming a couple of times a week on a club team while also participating in other sports to swimming six days a week multiple times a day for five months. Becoming purely a varsity swimmer, I learned even more of the intricacies of swimming: how the tiniest of details can change a person’s stroke for the better, how to write a practice and how to be a better leader.
I find so much joy in cheering for my teammates and watching them succeed—and it’s of course it’s fun to swim fast myself. However, finally getting to the prompt of this piece, I have had to confront the question of “Why We Play” in a pretty serious way.
October of my junior year, after experiencing severe back pain for the better part of 10 months, I learned that I had two herniated discs. I was faced with the possibility that I would have to quit swimming. However, I found definitively that this could not be an option for me. I could not handle being without my teammates and this sport that I loved so much. I had to put my head down and basically relearn how to swim, and how to be a part of a team where I was not swimming as fast or as much as I wanted to. It was not and is not an easy thing for me to face, but I had to continue swimming in whatever way possible because I could not imagine my life without it.
So, I find myself now having completed my last swim meet on this past Saturday. I did not get to swim at full capacity for the past two years, but I truly believe that I became an even more present teammate and that my appreciation and love for swimming grew beyond anything I could have imagined. I am constantly amazed by the dedication, talent and drive of my teammates. I know that swimming will continue to be a part of my life for the rest of my life, and I owe that to everything athletics have given me since I was four years old, running around without purpose on a tiny soccer field.
So, why do I play? I play because my team is my family. I play because I love the feeling of pushing my body to do impossible things. I play because it teaches me about myself and the people around me. And I play—basketball, soccer, swimming—because it is what makes me happy.