By Grace Cuddihy
An essay about letting go of your identity.
There were notecards above my bed, on my door, even on my bathroom mirror. They all say 1:10:88, my goal for the 100 freestyle. All week I daydreamed about my hand slamming the touchpad. When I’m practicing, a millisecond counter runs in my head. It’s only after I leave the pool that I feel the gnarled root of a migraine growing from my spine to my temple, but this just proves that I belong in the water. All athletes suffer, I reminded myself.
My friend Lizzie recorded my voicemail: “Hi, Grace can’t pick up the phone right now because she’s either dying or at swim practice.” I keep the recording for four years, holding onto my identity as a swimmer beyond all reason. Swimming was my whole world.
I was sitting in my neurologist’s office, searching for a way to improve my deteriorating health.
“Have you considered whether swimming is really for you?” My neurologist looks almost comically small behind her enormous wooden desk.
“Swimming causes many triggers for your migraines: lack of oxygen, dehydration, exhaustion…” As her words sank in, my esophagus coiled like a snake. No way. My whole family swam. What would my mom and I talk about? My friends and I joke about? What would I do with my notecards?
At school a few weeks later, a migraine flowered all across my forehead, pounding along with the clock on the wall as the seconds ticked by. Oh my god, I complained inwardly. I have so much to do tonight. I can’t have a migraine. Nevertheless, my migraine persisted, growing worse as the school day went on.
“Hey, should you go home?” My friend Gavin said as he tapped my shoulder gently.
“I can’t — I have swim practice after this. But if I throw up at swim practice, then I’ll go home!”
“What about the essay due tomorrow?!” Gavin asked incredulously.
“I can drink a few sodas after practice and then I’ll probably be okay to write.” Hearing myself say that out loud gave me pause. This isn’t healthy. Being a swimmer was my identity, but it was time for me to quit swimming.
I looked at myself in the mirror and took down one of the 1:10:88 notecards. Can I let it go?
“Hey,” Gavin asked during art class, “do you have swim practice tonight?”
“No…” the words caught in my throat. “Not tonight.” I can’t bring myself to say the whole truth: “not ever again.” I’m not ready to explain. “But… I did go down this Wikipedia rabbit-hole on the Zong massacre. Have you heard of it? It’s this mass killing, and the trial that followed spurred a wave of anti-slavery activism.”
Gavin looked surprised, but also curious. He asked me to tell him more.
I bobbed my head underwater, the familiar tang of chlorine on my lips. It’s been two years since I last swam competitively and swimming for leisure still feels weird.
“Grace, catch!” Lizzie chucked a basketball that my flailing arms failed to grab. Land sports never were my forte, but who knows? I hadn’t been sure I could handle fostering dogs, phone banking, or political organizing either.
“Wow, you’re a great swimmer!” my friend Jenna said after I did a placid butterfly stroke.
“Yeah, obviously,” Lizzie said, as she and I looked at Jenna, confused. Then it hits me. Oh my god, she doesn’t know I swam.
This was the punctuation mark on the sentence I’d been writing for years. I was no longer Grace the Swimmer. I could be Grace the Anything. I could just be Grace.
This was written for the “My Simple Realization” essay prompt, about when I realized I needed to quit swimming.
Grace Cuddihy is a writer, an activist, foster dog parent, baking enthusiast, and high school junior. She loves writing personal essays and writes frequently about her experience living with chronic illness. In her free time, she enjoys reading, watching Survivor and phone banking. Grace’s favorite book is The Perks of Being a Wallflower and her favorite book series is Percy Jackson: Heroes of Olympus. Her favorite authors are James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.