A fraction of a second. That’s how I determined success and failure. A fraction of a second made all the difference in my mind at 10 years old.
When I was just 10 years old I got to compete at the Natatorium, state of the art pool in Indianapolis.
This place is big and can be overwhelming for every swimmer. It was intimidating getting in the water or on the blocks for any race at that age, just trying to make sure you were in the right place for your event was overwhelming. The butterflies were always churning in my stomach.
My best stroke was backstroke. I didn’t choose it. I think it chose me. It ended up being the event in which I could best compete. Maybe it was my long spaghetti arms! When you swim backstroke in the Natatorium, the clock is so big against that wall that you can see the seconds ticking away as you are fighting to get to the end of your race. For me, that fight was for a “state-cut,” or qualifying time to compete in the state finals for age-group swim teams. If I could get that state-cut, I would feel like I was a good swimmer. If I didn’t, I’d be a total failure. I wanted so badly to know what it would be like to go to the state meet. I needed to get under 34 seconds.
“I’m good enough to do this, I just need a little extra kick going into the wall,” I thought.
I jump in the water to prepare for my heat. For back stroke, you get in the water first and pull up to the block for the start.
It’s always cold. I remember the sense of dread having to jump in the cold water and then hanging there for what seemed like forever before the official yelled,“swimmers take your mark.”
I can still hear it vividly.
I thrust backwards. I started talking to myself in the water.
“I think I can do this. I know I can do this. Just move, move, move,” I said.
I knew my parents were screaming. I knew my coach was whistling as loud as can be. But in the water, I can’t hear a thing. The noise is so muted, because my ears are under the water. All I heard were my own thoughts, and all I saw was the ceiling.
“KICK KELCEY, KICK, KICK, KICK!”
I saw the swimmers to my left and to my right.
I was right in the pack. But, I didn’t care about my place. I just wanted that state-cut time.
My body was on fire. I felt like I was going to get sick, but I just kept moving until some part of my body hit the wall.
I look up to see my time.
“C’mon…. under the 34…… under 34……,” I said to myself.
Kelcey Carlson 34.10
“AGAIN…………. I DIDN”T MAKE IT AGAIN!!!!!!!!!” I said.
What I learned as an athlete
I never got an individual state-cut. Instead, I missed the opportunity, time and time again, by about a tenth of a second. If you can imagine emerging from the water and seeing your time as 34.10 or 34.20, it’s crushing. And for me, it felt like failure.
Why did I have to work so hard when it seemed like things came so easily to others? I probably uttered that sentence a couple hundred times to myself as a kid. I felt like this when it came to sports, school and life. The gifted and talented program took 10 kids, I was number 11. In high school and college, it seemed like everyone had money and their parent’s credit card, I had a part-time job and a car payment. This was how I saw the story of my life. And, boy, was it frustrating. I knew if I worked, I could get better and sometimes what seemed like frustration and failure, was a gift.
As it turned out, the situations that seemed unlucky, were actually great assets. Hard work had never been a problem for me. As a swimmer, you stare at a black line on the bottom of the pool for hours on end. That builds a lot of patience in a person. In high school and college, I juggled a part-time job which gave me great time management skills and a very diverse group of friends from all walks of life. And always coming up short, put a fire in my belly and gave me the will to fight.
Because of my struggles, I think I’m better able to sense when someone else is struggling and in need of encouragement. I can relate to someone else’s bad day, and I know how it feels to look at all those situations in a different way. It all feels a great deal like success.