The Need for Encouragement — an Interview with Former Competitive Swimmer Emma Coulson:

16 October 2012
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Emma Coulson swam competitively for club teams, high school, and college. Her dream was to compete in the Olympics. She earned a Bachelor of Business Administration at Pacific Lutheran University is now the Creative Manager at Longevity Development.

Starting to Swim

G4: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Emma! We want to hear your story so let’s start at the top. What led you to swimming? How long did you do it?

Emma Coulson: I started swimming when I was very young. My mom put me in swim lessons and I worked up the lesson programs. I went through all sorts of programs in Colorado and California.

With swimming, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go competitive at nine. I am really glad I made that decision because swimming was social and competitive; it taught me so many lessons about life, learning how to be dedicated to something and be committed to something—hard work, practice, and dealing with disappointment.

Disappointment was a big thing that I learned because I was on a competitive team. If I didn’t get the best time or if I didn’t do as well as my friends or as well as I wanted to, there was a lot of comparison, a lot of looking at what others were doing. I did swimming because I loved swimming. I did not do it for anybody else. It was social. You learn a lot about people, but you can’t do something just because of the people. You have to do it because it is meaningful to you.

G4: Did you swim competitively for a club team or for school?

EC: It was a club team, which has different levels. Within a couple years I was on the senior team, which is really intense. Three times a week I was swimming an hour and a half in the morning and then 5 nights a week and a couple of Saturdays I was at the pool. I spent around 4 hours a day training, especially during the summer. It was pretty intense.

G4: Most people who aren’t familiar with swimming will only know what they see at the Olympics. Is the club team a stepping-stone that puts you on track for the Olympics?

EC: Yea. That’s what you want to do if you are serious about moving up. There is high school swimming and that’s just for fun. People can do really well in high school swimming if they have talent but there’s not enough training going on at the high school level to get anywhere.

The training really happens in the club team. I had friends that went to the Olympic trials; I trained with Olympians because Colorado Springs is where the Olympic Training Center is located. My coach was a nationally ranked coach for swimming at the time. It was really intense. Because of all that and because I was pretty good, I felt like I was going to the Olympics at some point and that was my goal. It was my whole life. I didn’t have a huge social life; I just wanted to swim and go to school; that was it.

G4: What events did you swim? What was your specialty?

EC: Breaststroke was my main specialty. I also did the individual medley. The 200 breaststroke was my best event. In high school, it was the individual medley.

The Mind of a Swimmer

G4: What steps did you take to prepare for competition?

EC: We did not have a whole lot of education on this back then (15 years ago). We weren’t given much information on nutrition or mental preparedness—it wasn’t a big thing then. I remember hearing discussions about visualization. Visualizing the race and mentally preparing for the worst that could happen—just getting yourself into competitive shape, to really go after it. I often visualized the race.

G4: Did you feel like the visualization benefited? Did it help when you were actually in the meet?

EC: It did. It was like practice. You really don’t want to swim a 200 breaststroke when you have never swam a 200 breaststroke before. So it was the same mentally; you don’t want to go out there not swimming the 200 breaststroke in your mind at that particular pool against that particular level, against those particular people, in the type of shape that you’re in. It was very helpful. A lot of us did visualization up to a couple minutes before our races. You go get ready for your race; you put some music on; you swim your race in your head.

G4: Did you develop any sort of nutritional rubric through your competitive time?

EC: My mom and I tried experimenting with different foods before the event. I had spaghetti one night—everyone said at that time that spaghetti was the best before a meet—I know that’s not true now but for some reason that’s what it was back then. It was all hearsay—there weren’t a lot of hardened facts about what you should do. I wish I had more nutrition in my experience because it was either really expensive to get a nutritionist to come and work for the team or our coach didn’t believe that it made that big of a difference.

G4: Swimming is an individual sport. Even though there are swim teams and relays, at the end of the day you are swimming in one lane and it is your body and movement that results in success or failure in the competition. What did you do to keep yourself motivated in this individual sport?

EC: The love of swimming, really. I just loved doing it. I loved being in the water. I loved the feel of actually swimming. It’s exhilarating. You feel good when you’re done because it is so intense—it’s like running a marathon and finally finishing. You get a huge adrenaline release. It’s addicting. I even got to the point where I was addicted to pain. You get to that point where you are just in so much pain but you just want to keep going. I just loved the sport of swimming. It’s what motivated me. I wasn’t super competitive deep down. I am a competitive person but I am not seriously competitive. I had to work at it.

Facing the End of a Swimming Career

G4: What contributed to your decision to end your career? You were doing it at a high level and then you stopped. What led you in that direction?

EC: I started plateauing and when I was about 15, I slipped on the pool deck and fractured my arm. That pretty much was the beginning of the end. Although I tried to recover, I could never recover to the level I was at. That was really hard. Mentally, it was really difficult. I was “washed up” at a really young age and nobody could really understand why.

At that point I made the decision to continue swimming because I loved it. But it became really hard when you are not at the level you used to be. I swam in college too, just for fun, but I quit soon after college. I did swimming for a long time; I don’t hate the sport; I just needed to do other things. As I have gotten older and have a relationship with God, I realize that this was a journey he had me on and I was meant to do other things. I was not meant to devote my whole life to swimming. I am grateful. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this journey.

G4: We appreciate you sharing that. Regarding your injury, is there anything that could have been done differently? How could you have recovered better?

EC: More encouragement. More people cheering me on. My mom was my biggest supporter but she was the only one. My coaches didn’t care if I got back into it. They weren’t going to spend a lot of time working with you one-on-one. It was up to you to fix yourself. It was a very critical environment. If I were to do it differently, I would’ve found someone that could’ve helped me because the team wasn’t helping me. I couldn’t rely on the team to help out. That wasn’t their strength. Their strength was to push you as hard as possible and to let you go if you couldn’t keep up. Finding another team or having more people supporting me. That’s what I would want to be different.

G4: The encouragement factor is a big deal. We want to be the best we can be but it has to be grounded in encouragement. Without it, failure becomes a big issue. Encouragement is a critical component. We are thankful for your insight!