For as long as I can remember, competition has been woven into the fabric of my life. As the youngest of three children, I grew up trying to keep up with my siblings. From heated games of Monopoly to running laps around the yard, I learned to embrace the fun and excitement of light-hearted rivalry.
Sibling rivalry played a role in my gravitation towards my first individual sport of swimming. My sister joined the local swim team, the Sharks, when I was six. When I expressed interest in being on the team, she was as resistant as can be expected from a nine year old. My family compromised with her and she was allowed to be on the team without her annoying little sibling for one year. At seven, however, I showed up to practice, more eager after a year of anticipation and mild jealousy.
Age-group swimming was my entrance into the world of formal competition, a world that I’ve been engaged in ever since my first race. A few days ago, I was asked by a young girl how many races I’ve competed in over the course of my life. I realized that I’ve lined more start lines than I can recall. I scratched my head and struggled to answer. I’ve certainly raced more than a hundred times, but I couldn’t even give a ball park figure. Racing is a familiar friend, one that has been a huge part of my life for almost all of my life and one that I’ve taken for granted.
While I have forgotten more than I remember, my first “real” race remains clear in my mind. The Sharks traveled to one of the slightly dingy pools of the small Upstate New York towns where we competed. I did the 25 backstroke, windmilling my arms wildly in the outside lane with little regard for technique and tactics. My mom was sitting in the bleachers and I ran to her afterwards, eagerly looking for affirmation. She looked at me and said, “well, you certainly couldn’t have moved your arms any faster”, feedback that continues to make me laugh even decades later.
I have no idea what my time was or where I placed that day. What I do remember was how I felt: proud, excited to race again, and part of something bigger than myself. In the ensuing years, my relationship with sport has changed and evolved, mostly for the better, but also negatively at times. For too many seasons, I used competition as a way to determine my self-worth; a good race made me feel validated and a poor one made me question my value as a person. In order to love my sport and have a healthy relationship with competition, I knew that I had to change my approach. In recent years, I’ve returned to the initial reasons why I fell in love with racing: to be part of a community, to push myself, set goals, and for the sense of fulfillment.
Like many people, I’m adjusting to the current state of the athletic world: a landscape lacking formal competition. For the first time in my career as a professional athlete, I’m not working towards a specific race. As someone who relies on racing for my livelihood, the absence of racing has unquestionably been a challenge. I miss the goal setting that comes with race preparation, the opportunity to demonstrate my craft, and the triathlon environment. While we can find tremendous fulfillment from the process of training, there’s something specific to formal competition that we can’t replicate on our own.
While I miss my familiar friend of racing, I’ve found gratitude in its absence. At some point, we will be able to resume racing in big groups and feeling the thrill of toeing a start line. In the meantime, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to reflect on why I race and why I love competition. While my relationship with sport has deepened and evolved over the years, a part of me will always be that wide-eyed 7 year old windmilling her way to the finish line. Competition will return and I plan to approach it with the wonder and appreciation that I’ve rediscovered this year.