My swimming career didn’t start the way you might think. My parents enrolled me and my sisters in swimming lessons because we had a family boat and they wanted us to be water safe. I had no dreams of college scholarships or Olympic medals. The pool was our playground and our favorite place to use our imaginations and spend time with our friends.
In the end, I did make a career out of swimming — but that’s not all that I got out of my swimming lessons. The hours I spent in the pool helped shape my character, and served as a springboard to success. I learned:
1. To find the fun in everything.
Leading up to the 2012 Olympic Trials, the background image on my phone was a picture of me as a 5-year-old climbing out of the pool after a race. I had a wild grin on my face and was clearly having the time of my life. With any kind of success comes pressure, and as I trained for my shot in the Olympics, I wanted to hang on to the wide-eyed bliss of that 5-year-old girl. She didn’t care who touched the wall first. She was just having fun. And with time, I learned that when I was having the most fun, I was at my best.
2. To be a team player.
Most think swimming is an individual sport. While it’s true that only you are responsible for your performance in the pool, all your highs and lows happen right alongside other people going through the same trials. And when I think back now on my career, I focus less on moments of individual achievement and more on moments of laughter and bonding with my team. Your teammates are the people who know you at your very best and your very worst. The ones who choose to dream with you. The ones who push you to levels you thought were too far off. The ones who believe in you through everything. Even though you’re swimming alone, you learn to take care of and be true to your team.
3. To fail.
Swimming is a great sport because, from a young age, you have multiple chances each day to succeed or fail. Whether it’s training or competition, you’re working toward a goal — and the clock will tell you if you made it or not. I lost a lot. I won a little. The bigger the failure, the more I learned. It either made me hungrier, or it made me reevaluate my choices. And each time I failed … it made the next win that much sweeter.
In September, LifeWise Health Plan of Oregon members age 5-13 were given the chance to write in and tell me what they loved most about swimming. From the ones who wrote in, we selected 20 to come to a pool party with me. The idea was to encourage kids to be active and stay active as they get older.
Some of them may grow up to be Olympians. Odds are, though, that they will go on to do other things. I hope they use swimming as I did — as a safe place to learn the meaning of success and failure, and how to put it all in perspective.
Ariana Kukors is an Olympic swimmer, world-record holder and Pacific Northwest native who is working with LifeWise to promote healthy living. Follow along on her journey to live an active and healthy life.
Photos by Ivan Agerton.