GetShotByElla.com team member Gabriella Shelow wears many hats. Gaby, as we fondly refer to her in our studio, is the designer of the GetShotByElla.com Sunface design (Pictured right). Gaby was also instrumental in the theme selection and set-up of this website. When she is not helping out at GetShotByElla.com, she is a writer, teacher, photographer, artist and swim coach. She is an avid recreational athlete and in addition to swimming, enjoys running, surfing, skiing, snowboarding and hiking. Her memoir blog, Swimming Lessons, offers “life strokes” that are universally applicable. (Names have been altered.)
By Gabriella Shelow
As I think back on some of my favorite childhood memories, there is one thing that unites them, swimming. Swimming has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. My collage is filled with pictures of me as a baby when I first started swimming; pictures of me playing at my grandparents’ pool, pictures from my first swim meet, and pictures from my last swim meet as a competitive swimmer in high school. Looking back on my childhood swimming career and my current involvement in swimming, it becomes clear that swimming has been more for me than just an energy outlet. Swimming has shaped who I am as a person. It’s taught me some of the most important lessons in my life and given me some of my most admirable character traits. Specifically, swimming taught me the invaluable lessons of self-reliance and self-motivation. Early on, I learned to compete with myself instead of those around me.
I had my first swim lesson before I was even old enough to walk. Being a spring baby, my mother spent her first hot summer with me at the pool. She claims it was the only thing that kept me from being fussy. As she floated around with me in the cool water, teaching me to blow bubbles and put my head under the water, I doubt she even imagined the love affair she had sparked.
At seven years old, I was a hyper kid. The pediatrician told my mother that I might be suffering from ADHD and that I could be put on medicine to help me calm down. My mother had a different idea. Instead of putting me on medicine, she put me in the pool. That summer, in the hot Florida sun, I started swimming for the Community Aquatics Club team – a team I would spend many more years on. I started off at the Gator level (the lowest of the three levels before the competitive team), and I couldn’t have been happier. I remember thinking I was Ariel, from the Disney movie, fluttering around the pool in my favorite Little Mermaid bathing suit. When I wasn’t at swim practice, I was at my grandparents’ pool acting out one of my favorite scenes from The Little Mermaid. I could recite every single line from the movie, start to finish, by heart!
According to my coaches at the time, I was a natural in the water. I quickly moved from Gators to Sharks, and then to Dolphins – the highest level before entering the competitive team. I remember the night my mom asked me if I wanted to move up to the competitive team. Her biggest concern was that it would still be fun for me. She knew that I loved swimming and really enjoyed it. The idea of putting me onto a competitive team at a young age had her worried because she didn’t want swimming to become something I resented. Not me. I was eight, and I couldn’t imagine anything better in the whole wide world. To me, swimming was the best way to spend my time. It wasn’t about competition or winning, it was about having fun and being with my friends. It was still a totally pure sport.
From then on, I spent almost every single day after school at the pool, swimming for Coach Finn. It wasn’t long before I caught the competitive bug. It was hard to avoid it. All the praise I received from my coaches and teammates when I did well made it hard to not focus on winning. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that winning wasn’t everything.
There was always one girl who I wanted to beat in the pool. Her name was Mason and her parents were those overly obsessive stage parent types. They watched every single practice and would coach Mason relentlessly from the sidelines, often even contradicting what Coach Finn told her. I hated Mason because everyone thought she was a faster swimmer than me, even though our times were extremely close. I frequently overheard her parents comparing her to the rest of her teammates, talking about how much better she was than everyone else. Now, as an adult reflecting back, I realize that it was silly for me to be bothered about this, but as a kid, their behavior really upset me, especially since my parents refused to brag about me in front of anyone, no matter how many times I secretly pleaded with them in the privacy of our home. Now I understand they were absolutely right.
During middle school, I finally got my retribution on Mason and her parents. At a home swim meet, I beat Mason in the 100 yards breast stroke event. I beat her good, too, by about half a body length.
All of our teammates rushed over to my lane screaming in celebration. Their congratulations to me were meant as slams to Mason. None of them were overly fond of the high and mighty pedestal her parents had managed to erect for her on the pool deck. Mason was in the lane next to me, and she heard it all.
But that wasn’t enough for me. I jumped out of the pool and ran up to my mom and dad who were sitting in the bleachers. Full of pride, I boasted to them that I was, in fact, better than Mason. My dad didn’t respond, and my mom gave me a stern look. Mason’s parents were sitting right behind them. They were proceeding to yell at Mason for not winning. Suddenly hearing them and viewing the crushed look on Mason’s face, reality hit me.
I didn’t even need the lecture I received on the car ride home. I already knew what I’d done. It wasn’t Mason’s fault that her parents were like that. Worse, I hadn’t made Mason mad; I had hurt her feelings. She had even congratulated me afterwards for winning the race. I was so out of line.
From that day on, I never worried about beating someone else in the pool. I worried about beating my own time and having a personal best. In the end, this worked out well for me. I learned to look inward if something wasn’t going my way, rely on myself to make improvements. This wasn’t just in the pool either, it leaked into other parts of my life, like school, work, and even in relationships.
This work ethic that swimming gave me has stayed with me my entire life. The decision to stop swimming competitively was hard. I remember that phone call with my coach. He laid out my options for colleges I could swim at, all Division three schools with no scholarship money attached. It wasn’t easy giving up something I loved so much, but I knew what I was looking for in a college and a small school just wasn’t it. I was ready for new challenges, so I left swimming behind, or so I thought.
Now, more than eight years later, I’m involved in competitive swimming again, only this time I’m involved as a coach. I see my little seven and eight-year-old swimmers, and they remind me of myself. Some are so excited just to be in the water, much like I was in the beginning, while others have already found that competitive streak and spend entire practices and meets trying to beat others.
At a swim meet last weekend, I sat down with one of my little swimmers, Nick, after I watched him get into an argument with five members of the other team. As he explained to me that the other team had started it by saying they were going to beat him, I was instantly reminded of myself and how I used to feel when Mason’s parents would boast about her. I did my best to impart my wisdom to Nick, telling him that the great thing about swimming is that it’s all about beating your own time, not beating someone else in the pool. I encouraged Nick to focus on getting a personal best.
I didn’t really know if what I said to him had sunk in or not, but I let it go. With seven-year-olds, I know I’ve only got about 35 seconds before I completely lose their attention. But then something amazing happened. Well, I thought it was amazing. Nick came in second place in his race. He was actually beat by another kid on our team. He hadn’t seen it coming either. I looked at him. He was upset, but not as upset as I was as I watched his mom run-up to him demanding to know what had happened and why he hadn’t won the race. And then Nick did something that made me extremely proud, he repeated my speech to his mother, telling her that it was not about what place he got in the race but about his time. Then he stormed off away from her. I smiled as Nick’s mother looked at me with a bewildered expression. I don’t know if that experience will be Nick’s turning point or not, but I was proud that he had at least put the competitiveness away for the rest of that day.
Swimming will always be a part of my life. Whether I am competing, coaching, or simply using it for exercise, swimming is a part of me. I can absolutely say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. Through swimming, I’ve learned to be self-reliant, self-motivated and inward-looking, skills that have benefitted me throughout my life, and skills that I hope to impart to my students and swimmers.