Why We Play: Margaret Reisert, swimming

“Why We Play” is a weekly installment in which Vassar athletes write about what their sports mean to them. This week we feature Margaret Reisert, second from right. Courtesy of Margaret Reisert

Okay. Picture this: me, I’m really short, with relatively long light brown hair, 19 years old and a sophomore in college. It’s early November, just after the insanity of a Vassar Halloween, and I’m sitting in an exam room in Baldwin, our on-campus medical center, with a literal hole in my leg.

No, not a figurative hole in my leg—an actual genuine, for-real hole in my leg. This hole is about halfway down the front of my left calf, and it is approximately the size and depth of an eraser on the end of a classic Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. The edges of this wound are seeping slightly down my leg, which was delicately placed over a green bin by an extremely concerned nurse. This nurse and her assistant stand over my leg and inform me that I need to take myself immediately to the hospital.

“Yo, this is a sports column! Why are we discussing a gross medical issue?”

Hear me out, I swear.

My rationale for swimming came fully into focus when I was sidelined from the sport during the majority of my sophomore season with this wound, which later turned out to be a staph infection.

Throughout middle school and high school, I was always very vocal about my sport, even though it went unnoticed by my classmates. I began swimming at such a young age that when I entered middle school I had two distinct identities—that of a swimmer and that of a “smart kid,” though my swimmer identity was always the one I relied on more. In middle school, I distinctly remember being at club meets on Saturdays, trying my hardest to track down a Sharpie with which to write out my races on my arm. Come Monday, the marks on my skin would still be there, and I hoped that my peers would ask questions about my meet. They didn’t.

These two identities informed how I went about making friends and how I went about living my day-to-day in high school, though swimming was always more important. Back then, I lived and breathed swimming because the pool was the place where I felt the most accepted. Although I’ve always felt most at home in the pool, my identity as a swimmer was always so second nature that I never actually sat down and thought about what it meant to me. After getting this infection, I needed to.

Now, back to the hospital. To make a relatively lengthy story short, after I was examined by the nurse at Baldwin, I called my mom and headed immediately to the ER, where I was admitted with some alacrity. I stayed in the hospital for three days, and after some wonderful IV antibiotics and a surgery, I returned to Vassar. I was left with an even deeper wound in my leg than before, approximately the size of a quarter and the same depth as that pencil eraser. In order for me to swim again, it needed to heal entirely.

I was initially told that my wound would be healed in six weeks, which was so far from the truth that it’s almost silly to repeat; the wound eventually healed three months later. As short as that time period may sound to you, dear reader, it was a period in my life that felt like it would never end.

In those three months, I lost my sense of self. I lost my sense of who I was because I couldn’t participate in the sport that had defined me for so long. Swimming had been the glue holding my life together, and without it, my emotional state and my time management fell apart. It is very hard to go back and remember those days because of the whirlwind of emotions I felt at the time. I remember feeling sad that I couldn’t participate and angry that I couldn’t swim. But most of all, I felt lost. I experienced such a loss of identity during this time that I felt unrecognizable to myself.

Although I couldn’t swim, I was still a member of the team, which meant that I still needed to attend practice. So, I was at practice every day, standing on the side of the pool—some days in tears, some days just numb, for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. I attended countless meets, both single-day meets and multi-day ones, both in the morning and at night, and I even went on our training trip. All this without stepping into a pool above ankle level.

My saving graces during this time were my teammates. My teammates checked in with me when they thought I wasn’t doing well. They visited me in the hospital, and they supported my needs in every way I could possibly imagine. They, to this day, are the best friends I’ve ever had and the most supportive people I could ask for. I hope I have been the same kind of friend to them as they all have been to me. I’ve been so lucky to experience four different iterations of Vassar College Swimming & Diving and I have appreciated every group of people in a different way.

Although it isn’t the most pleasant memory, I reflect back on this experience to think about how my relationship with swimming has changed throughout college. My identity as a swimmer is intrinsic to how I live my life, as it has been for so long, but my relationship to that part of myself is more complex than it once was.

Throughout high school I swam for myself; it was simply the culture. I swam for my own times, my own experience and to feed my own ego, which in some ways fueled my first year of swimming in college, too. However, after my experience with that infamous staph infection, I began to swim for my teammates. Truthfully, I’ve stayed on the swim team because of them. Collegiate athletics is significantly more team-oriented than club swimming ever was. In my eyes, this makes for a much more powerful experience. My collegiate swim journey has been incredibly worthwhile, and I am thrilled I was able to join this team in the first place.

Although it was unpleasant to live through, I learned from the staph infection that I swim for my teammates as much as I swim for myself. That knowledge has made my swim career richer than it ever could have been before, and it’s something that I am overwhelmingly proud of. In essence, I love to swim, and I always will even after graduation, but I would never have been able to do it without my teammates.

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