By: Julia Wilkinson
04/17/2012 11:11 PM
- When I was sitting in the ready room before my 100-meter backstroke final at Olympic Trials, I noticed something: I was unreasonably calm. Of course, calm is the feeling I aspire to have before a race. I swim my best when I am confident: confidence makes me feel like I am in control, and that the race is for second place behind me. The only problem is, my pre-race demeanor has, in the past, been the opposite of “Zen”: I get so nervous, I sometimes throw up. If I don’t throw up, I at least feel like I am going to, and the whole experience is generally unpleasant, which is not conducive to fast swimming. So what was the difference at Olympic Trials?
I have known for a while that my inability to deal with anxiety has been my Achilles heel. How to fix this problem has been a mystery until recently. Don’t get me wrong: I still get nervous before races. Nerves let you know that you care. I have just learned how to control and channel my nerves in a healthy way.
Just after Christmas, I started doing yoga with a few of my teammates. I had done a few yoga classes here and there: many of which ended in me falling on my face and laughing in the back of the class while being glared at by women who looked like pretzels. Let’s just say I am not the most flexible person in the world. I can barely touch my toes on a good day. That being said, I never got a lot out of yoga until now.
Lucky for me, my yoga instructor (Laura) has a very thorough understanding of my goals and doesn’t have any expectations for me to look like a pretzel any time soon. Laura herself was a swimmer at the University of Western Kentucky, so not only does she have amazing knowledge about yoga, but she is the perfect “yoga-for-swimmers” teacher.
Our practices have two focuses: the first is to improve my flexibility, and the second—and more important one—is to teach me to control my mind. It may seem like a simple task, but after years of allowing stress to simply overwhelm me, it takes a lot of practice to find my inner peace. With Laura’s help, I have learned to use breathing and meditation as a way to keep myself from getting stressed in the first place. I used to try and use these techniques when I was already feeling my nerve-nausea, and that failed miserably. Now, I use them as my armor against the anxiety before it sets in: it is always a constant battle, but I am now much better prepared.
I especially enjoy practicing the balance poses: although I am still working on the basic ones, they epitomize how far I have come as an athlete. A year ago, I would simply topple over if I tried to do a tree pose: now, I can stand for as long as I please, simply because I have decided I can. The balance poses incorporate flexibility, strength, and my ability to control my own thoughts: also the important aspects to fast swimming.
I know that even after I have hung up my suit and goggles for good, I will still practice yoga: it has taught me not only to be a better athlete, but also to live a happier life. I used to think that yoga was only about physical flexibility, but it is about mental flexibility as well; anyone who struggles with anxiety should consider practicing yoga.
There are still many ready rooms in my future, and now I know how to handle them thanks to my newest hobby outside of the pool. Swimming is my life, but there is more to life than swimming.