Training mind, body to be better than ever
Going through a moment of crisis transformed me, humbled me and brought out what mattered most in my life. During my suspension from competing, I probably would have lost my spirit completely if I didn't have a loving group of family and friends there supporting me through it all. Giving up my spot on the Olympic team was extremely traumatic. But more than anything, I needed to fix it and I knew I couldn't do it alone -- though I wanted to. For the first time in my life, I was forced to let my guard down and let people help me.
My mom is a practicing, licensed psychotherapist, but I'm sure it wasn't easy for her to play the role of my mom and therapist. She was so good at talking me through emotions, calming me down, pumping me up and helping me process my own thoughts. My sister, Amanda, who was a junior national team-level athlete in water polo, and stepdad, Bill, who's a lawyer, were amazingly understanding, too. Luckily, I had the perfect support group for an unlucky situation. I couldn't have survived the ordeal without them.
As supportive as my family was, it was my fiancé, Dominik, who encouraged me to seek help outside of my family. At one point, I was depressed, feeling really negative and taking it out on him. He sat me down and urged me to see somebody. Looking back, I realize I had put him in a really uncomfortable position. Every time he tried to cheer me up, I'd shoot him down. So it was a reality check and definitely the right thing to do. When I told my mom, she suggested I revisit my childhood family therapist -- the one I used to see after my parents' divorce. I also sought the services of the U.S. Olympic Committee's sports psychologists.
Having these professionals in my corner was huge for me. They all attended to different needs. My mom and the family therapist were very nurturing. Both have known me my whole life, know my emotions and know how to handle me very well. The sports psychologists, on the other hand, were great at directing that competitive drive and dealing with feelings that surround sport and competing. They got me to focus on being a better swimmer and trained my brain to be a better competitor through techniques like visualization.
To be honest, doing this type of mental work was the easy part. I could immediately start working on these strategies, but getting rid of the anger, hurt and frustration took much more time. It took three years, actually, to fully get over it and start using the experience to grow.
I still do the brain training I learned from them and work on controlling my emotions and mindset every single day. My mental game had never been my focus before 2008, but now it is. I rehearse my energy level and the emotions that I feel when I'm racing. I practice my whole race-day strategy in my head -- on a day when everything goes exactly how I want it. I read sports therapy pysch books to learn new mental approaches. I think about it almost all the time, and that's all new for me. Now that I'm past all that negativity and anger in my life, it has all become such a positive place for me to grow as an athlete and a person.
I'm proud of how far I've come and even a bit surprised. I am training and competing better than ever before. I didn't expect to swim the season's fastest time at my first competition: the 100-meter breaststroke at the Indianapolis Swimming Grand Prix on March 30th. It wasn't my goal going into it, so for that to happen when I was just having fun is awesome -- and a bit of a relief. To know I'm on the right track during such an important year is exciting and motivating. And best of all, I'm on the right track mentally, too.