For the first 17 years of my life, when people asked me to describe myself, I would start with the word “swimmer.” I started swimming when I was six, then quickly got into competitive swimming and started to go to races with my team. I stayed with the sport into middle school and then high school, with my practice schedule soon dominating my daily life. I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to school for morning swim practice before spending the day in class and then heading to after-school practice, which would run until dinner time.
It was easy to think of myself as a swimmer because of how much of my week I spent at the pool or preparing for the next meet or going to the pool by myself during the off-season. Even the label “swimmer” came with sub-descriptions: my specialty strokes were breaststroke and freestyle, and I was a sprinter.
When I got to Wesleyan, I stopped swimming. This wasn’t my original plan— I hadn’t been planning to keep swimming in college, but after committing to Wes, I walked onto the swim team here. After getting to campus, though, I realized all too quickly that balancing being a swimmer with every single club I wanted to try out here would be impossible. I decided to leave the team and explored other ways to spend my time on campus, with one of my biggest newfound time commitments becoming The Argus.
When I think about who I was as a swimmer, I remember the time in between my races at swim meets I spent at the side of the pool with my teammates, screaming for them to go faster at the top of my lungs; I remember writing my heat and lane numbers for each of my events on my arm in Sharpie and blasting Imagine Dragons to keep myself pumped right until I dove into the pool. I remember the burn of my lungs when we would do sprint practices, wishing that I hadn’t woken up for practice that day, and I remember the shouts pouring out of my throat when I slammed my hand into the wall and looked up at the timing board to see a personal best time. I remember how my closest friends in high school were all on the swim team, and how fun it was to be on the same relay team with them every single meet until our very last one, where I swam the last leg of the 4 x 50 freestyle relay with tears in my goggles.
Swimming fulfilled and drove the most competitive side of myself, and I do deeply miss having it push me every day. It wasn’t always a good drive—when my times plateaued in my sophomore year of high school and I couldn’t seem to go faster, my mental and emotional stability took a dive—but it had always been a part of me, and it was hard to think of who I was when I stopped being somebody who spent every day in the pool.
While I’d started to fill the time I gained from stepping away from swimming with other activities, that change was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic, and I moved back home to spend a year studying remotely. At home in Seoul, South Korea, I was either trying to stay awake through the 14-hour time difference with Wesleyan on Zoom or left alone with my thoughts, and the time I spent wallowing in my own brain eventually led me to question my identity. I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable on either side of the gender binary and figured out that I fell somewhere in between, leaving me to navigate in the strange in-between space of being non-binary.
When I came back to campus for the start of my junior year last fall, I was welcomed by my friends, but soon found myself facing the question of swimming. During my freshman year, I’d occasionally gone to the pool to swim on my own, but that seemed impossible to me now. Thinking about going to Freeman and having to face the endless gendered paths that lay between me and the pool terrified me, and I didn’t know when or how I’d ever re-enter a swimming pool. A space where I’d probably spent the most time and been the most comfortable outside of my own home for the entirety of my youth now scared me because of how it would require me to fit into strictly drawn lines of women vs. men in every aspect of the swimming experience.
These lines from a them.us article put it best:
“In a swimsuit, one’s entire body is on display, with little left to the imagination. I do not wish to have my entire body on display like this, as I am instantly read as a gender I am not, and I am reminded that despite my best efforts to alleviate dysphoria through layers of clothing, I still remain in the body I was born in.”
The experiences of professional athletes like basketball player Layshia Clarendon with coming out as non-binary in the sports world make it all too clear that the world of sports still has miles to go before athletics are welcoming to everyone.
Sometimes I think about how my time in college would have been different if I had stayed on the swim team—what my social circles would look like, how my free time would have been spent—and I also think about how I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have figured out who I really was if I’d stayed a swimmer. Since returning to Wesleyan last year, the space in my life that swimming left empty has been filled by new extracurriculars. Joining Throw Culture, Wesleyan’s all-gender ultimate Frisbee team, has been one of the best decisions I made in college. The people on that team and the space they’ve created to openly discuss and explore gender identity within the sport of ultimate Frisbee has been so freeing to be a part of, and going to tournaments to compete as a team has given me a new outlet for athletic competition without having to be cut and fit into a gender binary.
Sometimes people will ask me if I like swimming. I never know exactly how to give them an answer that encompasses everything about what being a swimmer was to me.
Jem Shin is a member of the class of 2023 and can be reached at email@example.com.