Courtesy: Sarah Luibel
I remember having my first panic attack at a morning practice. Sitting out on the pool deck, a knot mistaken for asthma in my throat, my coach told me to take deep breaths. “In through your nose and out through your mouth,” he told me. Though my breathing returned back to normal, the rest of my body did not. I sat there frustrated for having to get out in the middle of a set, for looking weak, for appearing like I couldn’t finish a set. This is the first of many times I remember resenting the disconnect between my mind and body.
This cycle would go on for 10 more years. Swimming turning into sitting on the pool deck, turning into taking a few puffs of my prescribed inhaler, turning then into going back into the pool with symptoms still lingering. I grew up with this idea, that my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen, that my lungs weren’t able to open up all the way, that this was something I could learn to live with. It wasn’t until this year, at the age of 28, that I realized patterns emerging. I hadn’t swam for a couple of years since college (5 to be exact) and now every time I would swim at a Masters’ practice, I would have an “asthma attack.”
The thing was, these attacks now looked less like asthma and more like something else. It wasn’t my lungs that felt like they were constricting but my throat, my body wasn’t gasping for breath, but instead for safety, and it wasn’t after a hard set that my body would be aching for oxygen, but right before one. Even writing this now I can feel my body sinking into the familiar rhythm of a panic attack. After speaking with my therapist we realized that for years I had been understanding my mental reactions to be asthma attacks, when instead they were panic attacks.
They would come before test sets, before big events. These attacks usually happened after I had been thinking or worrying about a practice, a meet, or a set. It’s funny now looking back because I wonder what could have happened to my college career had I known it was my anxiety all along. I wonder what type of swimmer I would have been, what type of teammate, or if I would have kept swimming at all.
Looking back it makes so much sense. How the attacks happened more frequently once I got to college. The Division 1 athlete carrying the weight of her own expectations and those she absorbed from everyone around her. I remember being called before one of my events at Sectionals the summer before I started college and being told by the coach he would increase my scholarship if I got my National Cut. So many other athletes may have felt driven to obtain that goal, taken it as a “watch me make it happen” moment, but that is not me. I sat there and froze, feeling the expectation to perform in that very moment. The expectation to make college payments easier for my parents. The expectation to prove to my coach I was recruited for a reason. The expectation to prove to myself that 11 practices a week weren’t going to waste.
I bombed that race. In swim terms, we call it a DFL – or dead freaking last. I remember I was so nervous that I couldn’t eat or drink, I just sat there instead, visualizing my race, and when they blew my whistle to go up to the block I started throwing up out of nervousness. I hopped into the pool to begin my 200 backstroke- dehydrated, emotionally exhausted, and crying. I cried the entire 200 backstroke (long course I may add), but tried my best to keep it together. I got out of the pool and my club coach saw it all in front of him- handing me a Gatorade, giving me a hug, and letting me go cry it out in the locker room. I didn’t get my national cut, I instead added 5 seconds to my time.
This cycle of panic attacks and anxiety around my sport continued all through college swimming. I remember practicing so hard, but dying during meets or test sets. I always felt ashamed, sending thoughts into my head like Why was I even recruited? I bet my teammates wonder why I am even on scholarship, it should be given to someone else. Why can’t I keep it together? Come on Sarah you are better than this!
I look back now and wish I was gentler on myself. I look back now and wish I had asked for help. I look back now and wish someone had been there to give me permission to ask for help. As a Division 1 athlete your sport is your job first and foremost. For athletes who are on scholarship, you are getting paid to perform, and now that athletes can be sponsored, there is even more on the line to perform.
I envy those who are able to perform under pressure. Who can push past the nerves, the fear of failure, or the fear of disappointing people? I was always so worried about what everyone would think about me and disappointing my teammates and coaches. I was worrying so much about staying in shape physically, yet no one ever told me that my biggest opponent wasn’t who was in the other lane, but who was in my head.
As I continue to navigate these panic attacks, I have yet to find a “cure” so to speak, but I am working every day to form a better relationship with myself and to find a safe space in my body. So many years of my athletic career were lost due to this internal struggle I faced, and I grieve for that version of myself. I am sad that she was alone through it all and it makes me wonder how many other athletes went through, or are going through the same thing. For now, I am taking a break from the water, hoping to find peace within my own mind and body before returning. Learning now it is okay to take a break, it is okay to say no, and it is okay to talk about it. I think the biggest thing for me was to be seen as weak, less than or incapable of performing. My biggest fear was being seen as a failure to myself and others.
I hope through this process to be able to return to swimming with the same mindset that the 7-year-old version of myself had. I hope to learn to have fun again in the water. I hope that I can fall in love again with being in the water and let go of the need to constantly perform. I want ultimately, to make the 7-year-old version of myself proud, because she was the one who dreamt of being an elite athlete all along, I just got lost along the way. I hope through this all to find my way back.
Sarah Luibel is a former Division 1 Swimmer for UC Davis. She is currently an Instructional Coach for a school district in San Diego. In her free time you can find her reading, attempting new sports on land, and baking all things desserts for her friends and family.