Just Let Me Breathe

Just Let Me Breathe by Elle Rosenfeld - Photo by Zoe Oppenheimer

I woke up the morning of the competition with anxiety steeping in my stomach while the alarm set for 5:00 a.m. whistled like a teapot in the tiny hotel room. I was a competitor in the 2018 U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Competition. This meet in Dallas, Texas, was infamous for teams with daunting levels of talent from around the country. My crew of seven girls from Scottsdale, Arizona, qualified at the West Zone competition in both our combo and team routines, which we had been practicing all year. Coach Allison, along with our mental coach Terry, made the journey as well to aid us during the stressful days. This week, I was in competition mode.

I am a committed person. I am a rarely-cancels-plans, comes-to-every practice, thoroughly-completes-the-group-project, stick-around-until-the-end kind of individual. I strive to be the person who others can rely on when needed. Being dependable is one of the most valuable qualities that one can possess. In my life, the people I know who have this unwavering sense of responsibility are those who I respect and admire the most. Being committed is a characteristic that most often occurs naturally for me due to the dedication I see my parents display in their lives. For me, dependability leads to outbreaks of anxiety, stress, or clouded judgment, but it generally serves to my advantage. Especially in synchronized swimming, my devoted mindset helped me achieve my goals in my performance and as a member of the team. In group sports like synchronized swimming, an emphasis is placed on being a team player. In order for a team to be exceptional, coaches expect every member to be fully and faithfully engaged. Although, in my experience, the line between committed and obligated is hazy and can be easily manipulated by adults and mentors.

I first noticed the itch in the back of my throat the day prior while participating in the morning figure portion of the meet, but throughout the day, it intensified. The itch progressed into a breathing matter where I could not hold my breath for longer than 10 seconds without surfacing and breaking into coughing fits. Near the end of the day the worst of my issues was exposed when I had to stop and swim to the side of the pool during the middle of our only practice swim-through. I had always been the girl on the team with no muscle strains and no limiting medical conditions. I was not used to being the one in the helpless seat, and I hated it. This was not like my bathing suit clasp breaking before a performance, my nose clip falling off mid-routine, or a harsh sunburn. This was something I could not fix.

I laid in the bed for several minutes sizing up the day’s agenda. During the meet, a few of my teammates and I were assigned Terry as our chaperone in room 132. As she attempted to coax us out of bed, the words team routine, team routine, team routine…rolled around in my head like marbles circling the drain until I finally decided I would be late if I delayed any longer. I groggily emerged from the fluffy, white cotton covers to change into my team uniform. As I mechanically prepared, alarming images of an insufferable three-minute routine played in my head, a repeat of yesterday’s events. My rising feelings of uncertainty were about to bubble over the brim. I wished I could climb back into the cozy haven that was the hotel bed.

I heard a knock on the door right as I finished stuffing my bag full of equipment, granola bars, and bedazzled bathing suits. I knew that Allison was outside. I felt the tears looming closely, but I pushed them back. This was not the time to break down. I opened the door apprehensively and stepped outside to talk with her privately.

“Elle.” My eyes turned glossy and my hands sweaty. I was sure she noticed. I stared down, ashamed. “Relax, it’s okay! I want you to know that you don’t have to swim today. Nobody is mad at you. If you could let me know by nine that would be great though, because I’ll have to make adjustments.” I only took a curt breath as tears rolled down my face, but it felt like all the air in the narrow hallway surged into me, calming me down. Allison hugged me.

“I’ll think about it and let you know. Thank you.” I replied. She nodded and smiled, turning on her heels to head back to her room. I stood there for a second, wiped my eyes, and took out my key to unlock the door. Once inside, I quickly made headway to the bathroom to reset.

I stood at the mirror two minutes later brushing my hair into a ponytail when Terry called my name. I walked over to her, assuming she was going to reassure me that everything was going to be okay.

“Elle, I know you are having breathing issues, but you know your team needs your right now. It’s just a cough, you can do this! Think about how far you’ve traveled to compete…you can’t let down your team. They need you to be there for them. Don’t you want to do this?” Terry pushed.

I stood silently trying to absorb the advice she fired at me. Her sentiments should have sounded right, heartfelt, and genuine, but to me, they did not. Her statements seemed to contradict my values. I thought of how my mom always preached throughout my childhood that my health and well-being came before my commitments. My team, my longtime friends, the girls who loved me, would never pressure me to do something I was not comfortable with. Even my coach was willing to accept a penalty (for lack of members) to ensure my wellness. Although Terry held the trustworthy title of “Mental Coach,” I knew that name was not one that suited her. The people who I could trust to have my best interest were not those trained in pushing me forward and overcoming my obstacles, but those who knew my limits and when to stop and let me breathe.

This experience was the first time I grappled with the complexities of obligation versus commitment, but it would not be the last. I ended up taking it easy for the day and swimming in my team routine as a last-minute decision, but the lessons I learned from this experience were nevertheless gripping. I no longer participate in synchronized swimming, but still, I am confronted with these conflicts. I am still learning to stand up for myself, as I wanted to do with Terry, and not think I’m “less than” when I’m not meeting an unreachable expectation. As a person who struggles with perfectionism, it is very toxic for those with power, such as a coach, to manipulate a subordinate’s dependability. It is so important for young, impressionable, and perfectionistic people to be able to recognize their limits. I now understand that the qualities that make me a good student and athlete such as dedication, perseverance, and reliability can be harmful. By checking in with myself and asking, “will this make me happy?” and “is this healthy?” I can stay grounded in these situations. Most of all, my intuition is almost always right even if someone I view as a superior says otherwise. Despite the dissonance I felt from Terry’s words, I am thankful I learned to be my own advocate during this encounter and when to stop and let myself breathe.

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