Has anyone else been staying up way too late watching the Olympics this year? I love the dedication, personal stories, and simply watching people challenge their body and their mental focus to do incredible things. I am a bit obsessed with all of it. It started in 1984 when I remember seeing the Olympics for the first time. The obsession grew when I started swimming competitively as a kid. Some of you know that I swam throughout high school and went to the 1988 and 1992 Olympic trials for Canada (which is where I grew up even though I am an American), and I swam for University of New Mexico for 4 years as well. Swimming consumed most of my young adult life.
Then, I stopped swimming. Between graduate school and then raising young kids, I couldn’t commit the same time to it. I tried many other types of fitness, but it felt like I was fighting my body. I started to crave swimming again. Unfortunately, it was about this time I was diagnosed with diastasis recti (a very severe diastasis!) and my body was practically falling apart. Several specialists told me that swimming would make it worse (this is not true by the way… stay posted). As I started my journey to heal my core and reconnect to my body, I lived in fear that any wrong movement would make things worse. Swimming now seemed like it would only be a thing of my past.
My personal (and as it turns out professional) journey to heal my body from diastasis and severe weakness began when I questioned what “specialists” had told me. As a physical therapist, I started to really consider what I knew about anatomy, alignment, biomechanics, neuromuscular re-education, and of course, swimming. Despite what I was told, I started realizing that swimming might actually be one of the best things I could do for myself. So after reversing my diastasis from 6 fingers and deep to about 2 fingers and medium, I started swimming laps again. After an 18-year break, I had to re-frame what swimming would mean to me. It was no longer my whole life, but it could be a good piece of my life. I joined a local competitive swim team because let’s be honest, if I don’t have a coach, I will just float for 15 min and get out. 😉
Returning to team swimming has actually helped my core heal, despite what everyone had told me! Swimming allows me to elongate and engage my core, to open up my chest and get out of those chronic parenting postures (to see our tips, click here). It has allowed me to reconnect to my entire body, have full range of motion in my shoulders and hips, and actually be comfortable in a swimsuit again. My core rehab journey motivated me to re-evaluate how I swim and how I exercise so that I will be stronger and more connected to my body, instead of simply faster and leaner.
The interesting thing is that once I returned to swimming my body perception started to change. My mind really shifted to what my body was capable of and not just what it looked like. I was shocked that after my second competition, I qualified for Nationals. Nationals!!! I swam well and even logged my best times since returning to swimming. I felt so empowered by my ability to swim butterfly in my forties – and to swim it well. Butterfly really feels like a superpower!
I returned from Nationals feeling happy and strong, with a healthy relationship with the water and my body. I was swimming for the right reasons and no longer trying to be the swimmer I was as a 20-year-old. Instead, I was embracing the kind of swimmer I could be in my 40’s and on. At Nationals there are swimmers that swim in the 90-100-year-old age group!! I have to say, it is very inspiring to be in a sport you can do for the rest of your life.
A month later, I receive the US Swimming Magazine in the mail. Out of thousands of swimmers, a cameraman snapped a picture of ME doing a backstroke start and my underwater kick. When I saw the picture, it felt like I was kicked in the gut! My first thought was, “that is how big I look!” I immediately felt devastated. I could no longer remember how strong and happy I felt after Nationals. All I could see was “I have big legs, I have a huge back, look at my tummy, etc.” I didn’t show anyone the picture. I was too mortified.
I couldn’t hide the picture for very long. My friend soon saw it and said, “Wait a second! Is that you? Wow, you look so strong and powerful! That is amazing!” I looked at her with my mouth open in shock. At that moment, something changed. Wait, my body IS strong! My back and legs are big because they are filled with swimming muscles! My tummy is bulging in this picture because my suit has water in it after my start and I am doing dolphin kick! I should celebrate that I am strong enough to competitively swim in my 40’s at a National level! Why did I let that image change my perception of everything else I know to be true? That moment was another step in my journey to recognize how much images distort my perception of reality.
Now back to the Olympics! One thing I notice is that we are all built differently. I say this all the time to women but the constant coverage of the Olympics reveals it in a different way. Strong looks different on different people!! The body type that excels in the marathon is different than the one that excels in basketball. The strength that it takes to win gold as a shot putter is different than the strength it takes to win gold as a tennis player. I find myself in awe of beauty and capacity of the human body. I also recognize that these sports are a full-time job for most of these athletes.
Instead of comparing ourselves, I think we should celebrate these differences because they allow us to excel at different things. These Olympians don’t work hard to make their body look a certain way, they work hard so their body can perform a certain task. They don’t work for their body; they make their bodywork for them. Although most of us will never be Olympians, we still need our bodies to work for us – to be able to take care of the house, do our jobs, play with our kids or maintain our hobbies. We were all designed differently. And strength looks different on every person. Most of us can fall into the trap of allowing an image to distort how we feel. My encouragement to each of us is to recognize that strong looks different than skinny and believe that strong (however it might look on you) is absolutely obtainable!
PS: I am swimming at my second Nationals competition this weekend! My goal is to still be swimming strong when I am able to swim in this lane…
Thanks for reading my story. I hope it has inspired you to love your body and celebrate what it is capable of. We’d love to hear your story…leave a comment below! If my story was inspiring but you need core rehab to be able to do what you love, we would love to help you. We have both onsite and online rehab options.