How Swimming Helped Me Realize My Strength by Cat Splendore

 

It’s hard to get middle school girls interested in our After School program at Girls in the Game. Average enrollment numbers show a decline at the middle school level. This year we took steps to revitalize the curriculum, making it more relevant for the 11-13-year-old age group, and plan next year to implement these new ideas. But, there is more to be done to attract and subsequently retain these girls.

Studies show that by the end of middle school, there is a disproportionately large decrease in girls’ physical activity. Despite legislation aimed at reducing discrimination based on sex in educational programs like Title IX in 1972, environmental factors, societal influence and financial decisions are among the reasons why young women are at a disadvantage to get involved in sports.

I count myself among the girls who lost interest. When I was that age, I can’t imagine wanting to join a program like ours, even though I now know how positive it would have been for me. At the end of fifth grade, when my family moved, I transitioned from my large public elementary school in an urban neighborhood to a small private all-girls Catholic middle school in a more suburban neighborhood. I’d also stopped playing soccer due to moving and lack of interest. It was also during this time that I developed juvenile-onset fibromyalgia (JFM).

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.” It affects 3-6% of the world’s population, and 75-90% of diagnoses are for female patients. The average age for diagnosis is 45, though juvenile diagnoses are increasingly prevalent, and the average age for JFM is 13-15. Its cause is not necessarily clear, though genetics, decreased levels of serotonin and a combination of physical and emotional stressors are thought to be the primary causes.

I was diagnosed at age 12, after several months of visiting different doctors. I started annually visiting a pediatric rheumatologist who recommended I avoid stress as much as possible, exercise frequently, make sure to get enough sleep and eat healthy foods often throughout the day. I was also prescribed a small dose of a pain relief drug.

It was hard to be so disciplined with my health a young age, and in large part I failed. Since playing soccer, I’d not taken up another sport. My private, all-girls school offered no other sport options, and I didn’t question it. Instead, I turned my interests to art and music. However, if I ever had the chance to swim, I always did it. I knew how to swim due to my parents enrolling me in lessons as a child, but during this period I was not concerned with technique, I just loved being in the water.

 

Cat soccer
Cat on her soccer team in 2nd grade.

I decided to go to a large, urban, performing arts public high school after this, which had no sports teams. So, my physical activity entailed play rehearsal and occasional swimming for fun. Following that, I chose to attend an art school, which again, had almost no opportunities for athletics. During this time, however, I devoted more thought to treating the fibromyalgia and incorporated biking as my primary means of transportation as well as somewhat regularly practicing yoga.

Now, my Americorps year at Girls in the Game is coming to an end. At the start, when I realized McGuane Park had a pool, I was very excited. I started to swim on my lunch break, as well as attend an adult swim class. I found myself humbled in a swim class for the first time in 15 years. Certain things I could do naturally, but it was clear that I had a lot to learn.

Having a coach tell you what to do is very different from aimlessly swimming laps. At the time, I was struggling with breathing; I didn’t know how to time my breath or breathe out through my nose. It made me realize that I’d been swimming as an amateur rather than as an athlete. I became determined to change that while I had the opportunity.

After several weeks of practicing, our coach told us about an upcoming cross-park swim meet in which we were encouraged to participate. It was an early Saturday morning at a park on the North Side, and I arrived late and missed the warm-up. I’d never competed as an individual athlete before and I’d never watched a swim meet either, so needless to say I was nervous.

When it was my turn, I pushed myself to swim as fast as I could, while trying to stay calm so I wouldn’t hurt my lungs. It was hard and overwhelming. I felt at a disadvantage because most other swimmers were diving off the block while I, who didn’t feel comfortable yet to dive at all, started in the water. Looking back I did pretty well for my first try, but at the time I was tempted to give up on competing. Even though the tone of the event and the people were welcoming and non-competitive, I still felt pressure to do well, or at least not to fail, which was unfamiliar to me. I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with everyone watching me perform or being compared with other swimmers.

Cat girls
Cat with two of the girls she coaches at a Girls in the Game event.

 

Returning to my pool and talking with the lifeguards convinced me to attend more swim meets. They told me that it didn’t have to be about competing, but rather testing your skills and progress objectively. They were extremely positive and supportive of me and it encouraged me to keep trying to get closer to their level of expertise. I competed in three more competitions, recording shorter times and improving each time.

It became really easy to keep going once I started. My muscles started to change, and my body communicated a clear message: Swim — maintain your new equilibrium. It was the most natural thing to do, and I made it a point to schedule in my swimming time.

Over the past few years, as I’ve learned more about fibromyalgia and my body, I’ve determined that I need to get a lot of regular exercise to feel healthy, normal and functional.

As I continue to grow into adulthood, I’ve discovered the importance of routine and habit formation. Making healthy choices is far easier when the benefits are personal and undeniable. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to challenge myself sooner athletically due to the limits of education I received, and lack of exposure from my family and peers.

Considering the 45th anniversary of Congress passing Title IX, we should all be moved to consider the progress made during this period. Though it’s reassuring that contractually girls are not at a disadvantage to push beyond the limits of their education, we should consider the various social factors that might influence their decision to take that step.

How did I get where I am? I took risks, I questioned the limits of my uncertainty and challenged myself to go beyond what I thought I was capable of, or what was immediately comfortable to me. This is what I want our girls to do! It extends beyond athletics– ask questions. Question your preconceived notions about yourself, and about everything, and you will set yourself up for strength and success.

 

 

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