The sad truth about being an athlete

Choosing the path of an athlete is like diving into a sea of uncertainty.

An average swimmer in Singapore spends about 5 hours training in the pool daily, investing 5 hours a day training our heart out for a major competition for the year, which includes competitions like the SEA Games, Asian Games, and Olympic Games.

In order to qualify and participate in these major games, a swimmer must first go through a qualifying meet, which is usually about 5 months before the major competition. To qualify for these major games, a swimmer must first fulfill the following criteria: To be placed top 2 in Singapore, and to hit certain qualifying times based on benchmarks set by SEA Games, Asian Games, and Olympic Games standards.

For example, to qualify for the SEA Games, a swimmer must hit the 3rd position time from the previous edition of the SEA Games, and finish Top 2 places in Singapore.

Sounds pretty straightforward, so what’s the catch here?

According to the 2016 statistics, there were about 1,500 swimmers who took part in the qualifying meet, and an average SEA Games swimming team comprises of 30 swimmers, which means only 2% of swimmers actually make it to the team.

That’s where the sad part comes. What happens to the rest of the 98%?

A swimming race usually takes about 5 minutes to complete at the very most, and your fate is dependent on that 5 minutes of racing. The 5 hours of hard work every single day all boils down to that very 5 minutes of race time.

Imagine standing behind the starting blocks, and as you look across the other lanes, you see 7 other people in the final with you, and all of them have also worked equally hard and are equally as determined to make the team as you.

That’s when a few questions will run through your head…

Who’s going to win the race? 
Am I well prepared enough?
Am I going to swim well?
Do I trust myself enough to win the race?

Like I’ve mentioned above, choosing the path of swimming is like diving into a sea of uncertainty. Knowing that everyone is fighting for the same thing, with only 2 spots available for you to qualify.

Truth is, the ones that don’t qualify get left behind.

The brutal and selfish thing about swimming is that you either make it, or you don’t; there is no in between.  Imagine investing 5 hours a day training your heart out at the pool for that 5 minutes of racing, and all it leads to is nothing. Sometimes, you can end up losing a race by a mere 0.01 seconds, and that could be the difference between making the SEA Games team, or not making the team at all. All your hopes and dreams over the months of hard work crushed in the span of 5 minutes, that is brutal.

Losing something you invested so much in can be really painful, and losing a race by just a fingernail would hurt you so much that you’ll end up in a really sad emotional state. Athletes have the tendency to blame themselves for losing, and blame themselves for not working harder than they have already worked. But over the years of my swimming career, I’ve learnt that there are so many factors that can lead to the result of the race, and sometimes, it isn’t right to blame ourselves for a bad race. I personally feel that what matters most is that if we cross our heart and know that we’ve did the best that we’ve possibly could for the race, we have the right to not blame ourselves for the outcome and move on from it. 

I’m not saying that losing won’t hurt, because it does hurt, and sometimes it will hurt for a long time. With so much time invested into training, not only did you sacrifice loads of sleep time, you’ll also end up far behind your school work as the hours you spent training were the hours that your classmates were busy doing work. So if you don’t make the team, will the hours invested be worth it?

To add on to the pain, major competitions will usually be aired on television, so on one hand you’ll be supporting your fellow teammates through your television at home, but on the other, you’ll imagine the life on the other side. The “that could have been me” feeling will definitely come out somehow or other, and the lost of the race by a fingernail will haunt you for sure because you’ll keep replaying that lost race in your mind, and it will not be a pleasant feeling. Some may take it as motivation to strive harder for the following year, but for some others, it may be their breaking point.

So if swimming is so painful, what’s in it for us?

Even with a 5 hour investment does not guarantee you a spot to represent Singapore at a major competition. However, sport will teach you to embrace the feeling of uncertainty. Not everyone will end up being a winner in sport at the end of the day, but each and every athlete will learn the hardships that sport brings. We’ll learn that in life, even if things don’t go your way, life still goes on normally, and of course, we wouldn’t die after a setback. In fact, we’ll learn to be accustomed to setbacks and that makes us much stronger individuals than before.

Ultimately, choosing the life of an athlete may potentially be a painful one, but it teaches us to embrace uncertainty, and to take a leap of faith into following our dreams and to chase what we love. At the end of the road if you missed the opportunity to represent the country, you’ll still be thankful to have chosen this path, as the path of sports will definitely make you a stronger individual. Through the good and the bad times, it’ll strengthen you both physiologically and psychologically which will benefit you in the future stages of your life, and that is what books will never be able to teach.

Share this article: