Ella Alpert is broadcast director of Inklings, Staples High School’s newspaper/magazine.
She is also president of the Young Democrats Club, and one of the presidents of the Staples chapter of TEAM Westport.
For far longer, she’s been a competitive swimmer. After many years in the sport, Ella was named captain of last fall’s Staples swim and dive team.
It was quite a season — but not always in ways she expected. This month, Ella — who heads to Scripps College next year, to major in political science, American studies, or writing and rhetoric — wrote about her experience for Inklings.
Her words are insightful; her message, important. With her permission, I’m reprinting them here:
Throughout my childhood, I’ve missed birthday parties, sleepovers, playdates, you name it. Instead, I was staring at the black line on the bottom of a pool. Six days a week, 3 hours a day and around 48 weeks a year. This routine lasted for my 10 years as a competitive swimmer.
I finished my senior season as captain of the Staples swim and dive team this past fall. Then I took my cap and goggles off for the last time and quit. Even after starting the college recruitment process, I was no longer willing to keep up with the commitment and pressure of it all. I can now see how pressure and toxic competition hurt my relationship with the sport that I loved and limited my ability to pursue other passions.
I joined my first club swim team in 2ndgrade, and fell in love. Something always clicked in the pool. I loved the excitement of racing, the feeling of diving into the water, nailing the turns, pushing your body to the limit and the pride of hard work paying off.
However, I was adamant that I made time for my other interests. I liked my balance of orchestra practice, dance lessons, Girl Scout meetings and swimming. But I watched as my teammates improved greatly by making swimming their priority. And I was receiving the same advice from coaches: “You have great potential but need to be more committed if you want to improve.”
They told me double practices before and after school, 6:30 a.m. Saturday workouts and hours of daily exercise outside of the pool would be what it takes to become a serious, successful swimmer.
As a competitive person, I wanted to succeed, so I became fully committed to the sport and began to see results.
For many years, my love for swimming outweighed my desire for a normal childhood. But after years of serious commitment, my love began to fade and I resented swimming for taking it all away. Yet I wouldn’t let myself think about quitting. Swimming had become my whole life, identity, purpose. The child in me who vowed she wouldn’t let swimming consume her entire life was gone — whisked away by the pressure.
I was lucky that my parents never added to the pressure that I received from coaches and teammates, but many of my teammates weren’t as fortunate. My best friend’s parents pressured her to workout at home in addition to swim workouts and hired outside coaches for private lessons. They put so much pressure on her success that she pitted herself against her closest friends, damaging friendships.
Even as early as middle school, some parents were under the impression that swimming was going to get their child to college, and they needed to stay on the path to get there.
That being said, I don’t hate swimming or even regret my years in the sport. I love swimming and despite the pressure felt a deep yearning for success just like all competitive athletes. The sport introduced me to some of my best friends and taught me invaluable life lessons. However, I do wish I could have explored my other interests without the immense guilt that came with missing practice.
Now that I’m done with swimming, I have the time and flexibility to enjoy the rest of my senior year with friends, explore new hobbies and dedicate more time to the other extracurriculars that I enjoy. I’m excited to enter my college years without 6 am practices limiting my social life.
Swimming was such a huge part of my identity and for a while I didn’t know who I would be or what I would do without it. But I am excited to find out.
Thank you for writing this, Ella. As a parent of two eleven-year-old swimmers, I want to be sure I am considering their perspective as we navigate the increasingly competitive nature of the swim program. Your thoughts helped. Thanks again.
Sincere congratulations Ella on retaining ownership of your identity, your personal priorities and ultimately your soul and congratulations to your parents for supporting you. Your life going forward may not be easy but it will be yours and you won’t believe how satisfying it can be because you are your own person.
Incipit Vita Nova – begin new life – is the Scripps motto. As an alum, I wish you all the best at a wonderful school. Scripps is lucky to have you and you will be an asset to the community there.
You’ll hear from a lot of recovering swimmers on this thread. After starting out in Westport I went to one of those swimming powerhouse Michigan High Schools and “retired” after my Senior Year as well. I had offers to swim at both Columbia and Vanderbilt, but like you started to regret some of the endless sacrifices I made along the way.
What I’ve come to appreciate over time though, is how great the “life lessons” were, and how they translate to everything else I’ve done as a ‘grown up”.
Time management, the ability to focus on the task at hand and shut out everything else (I was a distance swimmer), relying on yourself, both mental and physical toughness….
Enjoy your “freedom” but rest assured your time committed to your craft was time well spent.
Beautifully written, Ella. I am so excited to see where your journey takes you.
Ella congrats on your decision and on your excellent writing – as Dan knows I write books for kids on this very subject and would love to talk to you at some point about it… he has my contact info! Best, Tg
Thank you for sharing your story. I hope many, many parents read your story and encourage a more balanced lifestyle for their own children. Children need lots and lots of time to play to develop their brains in a positive way. “Work” is not always the answer and does not always lead to “success”. We should be teaching our children how to “work to live” instead of “live to work”. Best of luck!