I've recently acknowledged that I'm finding it far more difficult to swim "fast" since I began experiencing frequent bouts of rheumatoid arthritis in 2007. A positive result of this experience is that it's led me to reexamine how I think about speed in personal terms.
After I wrote about why I'm grateful for swimming my slowest time ever, where I described my reaction to swimming 1000 yards in 13:29 at a recent Masters meet, one person commented that he would be delighted to swim it that fast.
That made me realize it was "slow" only in relation to my lifetime best of 10:45 which came 42 years earlier, and in relation to a time of 11:51 I'd swum five years earlier. Unless your time is a world record, "fast" is relative, not absolute.
That comment made me take a harder look at various instances in recent years where disappointment at my time or placing took away the pleasure of simply being there, seeing friends, being vigorous and active, and doing my best in challenging circumstances.
After some reflection I felt more disappointment in my reaction than my swimming.
It seems this coupling of ego and minutes/seconds is most likely among a relatively small subset of swimmers—present and former competitive swimmers. It can be healthy if it prompts efforts to discover and reach your full potential, to pursue challenges, but decidedly unhealthy if it causes you to avoid challenges because you fear the impact on self-image.
Several months ago I spoke with a woman, now about 70, who was an avid Masters swimmer in her 40s and 50s, but who I'd not seen at events in 10 or more years. When I asked why she no longer swam Masters, she replied "I can't stand getting slower." Yet it's inevitable we will all do that as we age, and a shame if it causes us to walk away from an activity that's so healthful. Or even to enjoy it somewhat less.
Since then, I've started adopting a values system that's more consistent with aging gracefully and healthfully. These attitude adjustments—based on the art of the possible—have proven helpful:
Swim with as much artfulness and grace as possible.
Grace has an inherent and universal inspiring quality. Strangers at the pool are far more likely to compliment a display of grace, than of speed. And when seeing a person older than me who moves with grace—I've seen examples in yoga, tai chi and swimming—I always think "I want to be just like you when I grow up."