A Letter to My Seventeen-Year-Old Self

 
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Last weekend, I co-facilitated and presented at one of USA Swimming's Women's Leadership Summits. The weekend was pure magic - the authenticity, growth, connection, clarity and strength gained by being in a room with 35 leaders was breathtaking.

Heading into this trip, I was riding a rollercoaster of emotions. In so many ways, I was coming home.

The last time I was in Colorado Springs at the Training Center was nearly 20 years ago. I was seventeen - and just one year out from the biggest meet of my life - 2000 United States Olympic Trials.

A dream ten years in the making.

And, it was on that trip 20 years ago when every part of me was studied, measured and analyzed.

Hands. Feet. Height. Weight. VO2Max. My stroke. My mind.

There was a part of me that loved all of it. In some ways, I felt like I was getting closer to my dream. Training at the United States Olympic Training Center alongside many of the world's best. 

And there was a part of me that wondered:

 Am I where I’m supposed to be? Am I doing things the right way? What do my numbers say about me? What are they thinking? 

Am I enough?

And then came the words I’ll never forget.

Your stroke is 99 + % efficient. There’s nothing to change. If you want to get faster, you need to lose weight and maintain your strength .
 

What my 17-year-old-self heard:

I’m fat. 

I’m disgusting. 

I need to lose weight. 

I need to be skinny to make the Olympic team.

 

What my 17-year-old-self felt:

Mortified. Exposed. Helpless. Ashamed.

 

What my coach heard:

She’s got this. If you want to help her go faster, here’s how: increase her strength-to-bodyweight ratio.

 

Except, we never talked about it.

Not a single word.

We went back to work. Head down. Plowing through. Fighting for the same goal.

Earn a spot on the Olympic Team.

The weekly weigh-ins continued. Workouts in the weight room intensified. And every piece of food was scrutinized. I went deeper into my own mind - hyperfocusing on all the areas I felt I was falling short.

My logbooks transitioned. Food became the centerpiece. The pages covered with words of the inner critic. 

The stories in my mind - left unchecked and unchallenged - soared so far away from reality. 

I was living in a world of all-or-nothing and good-and-bad.

Outside of the water, the inner critic drove.

And fueled the belief that to be an Olympian, I must look like this unattainable-ideal-image I'd constructed in my mind.

~

Do you know what happened? 

I made it. We made it. I got to the top of that podium.

And it still wasn't enough. 

The morning after winning Gold - while out doing interviews - the inner critic roared.

You're not thin enough. Athletic enough. Fit enough. Strong enough. 

You don't look like an Olympian should look.

~

Here's the thing -  

That voice inside our minds that's hyper-focused and relentlessly obsessed with all the ways we've fallen short or could've done better... when it drives, 

There's no level of achievement. 

No level of success.

No level of recognition that will ever be enough.

  Sure, it might quiet down temporarily.  

For me, the voice grew louder the more I achieved. 

Until I found myself face to face with the man who saved my life. G. At first, I fought back. I argued. I rolled my eyes.

And then something deep inside of me wondered... is he right? 

Did I achieve in spite of that voice - not because of it?  

Intellectually, I could see what was happening. Emotionally, it took time before I could disentangle that voice from my identity.

Together, we worked to remove the inner critic from the driver's seat. It took many homework assignments - and a readiness to LIVE free from it's roars - to do the hard work.

At one point during our time together, G sent me to see a nutritionist. I'll never forget her questions for me when she saw my logbooks. In the moment, I wanted to punch her in the face. Today, I'm forever grateful. Because her words planted seeds.

She looked at my logbooks - in absolute awe and said,

Imagine how fast you could've gone if you gave your body what it needed.

How much faster could you have gone if you didn't stray from your training plan - to do all the extra cardio that your inner critic told you to do?

How much faster would you have swam if you weren't a sobbing mess the day before your race in Sydney - because you stepped on a scale?

There was no going back. 

Her words stung - and something deep inside of me shifted.

There was no unhearing them.

I had three years of eligibility left. I was done letting the Inner Critic drive.

Three years later, I stood atop the NCAA podium with my fellow Georgia Bulldogs after winning an NCAA team title. Happier. Healthier. And faster than I'd ever been in my life. 

That's how I know it's possible: 

We CAN cultivate greatness and health - they CAN coexist.

And. Doing so, takes a village.

Which leads me here. To my challenge for all us - especially those of us who are in the coaching arena.

To make the shift away from this mindset of all-or-nothing. To embrace the world of AND.

In swimming, strength-to-bodyweight ratio does matter. The feedback I received at the Olympic Training Center was relevant.

AND.

There was no space to reality check the stories I told myself about that feedback.

As coaches, we hold a powerful position. We have direct access to our athlete's inner circle of feedback - especially about their physical bodies.

With that said, we can't control how our athletes hear what we're saying. We are going to mess up - and say the 'wrong' things at times. That's part of being human. 

AND. 

What we say - and how we say it - matters.

So what do we do about it? What can we control?

How can we cultivate greatness and health?

These are the questions we need to be asking.

I certainly don't have all the answers.

I have learned a lot along the way.

~

If I could go back to my 17-year-old self, here are a few permission slips I'd write for her:

Permission to be a rookie. To not know. To ask questions.

Of course you don't know what you're doing - you've never been in this moment before. You're not supposed to. This idea that everyone else has it all together - it's a facade. Struggle is universal. You can't control what other people think and feel - if you're unsure and find yourself starting to storytell and make assumptions, just ask. What they think about you says more about who they are than it does anything about you.

Asking doesn't mean you don't belong.

~

Permission to see the big picture

The highs and lows feel so big while they're happening. Neither one defines you. Give yourself permission to step back and see the big picture. To see that it's not one giant step that will carry you to your dreams. To see that one side step - one 'off' choice isn't going to derail you, unless we hand over our power.

It's OK to fall down. It's necessary.

~

Permission to carve your own path

This your journey - no one else's. Before Mia Hamm was Mia Hamm - she was Mia Hamm. Do you. If you're looking for validation of whether or not you belong here - you'll find it. Because, we see what we believe.

You belong. And you got here because you've been doing you. When the success comes, it will open up doors and may change how people look at you - but it doesn't change YOU. Remember, you cannot control what others think about you - say about you - or how they feel about you - no matter how hard you try. Anchor in your values - stay open to growth and do you.  

There is only one you. Learn from others who have gone before you - and know - there's no one 'right' way to do this. 

~

Permission to determine who's feedback matters

As an athlete, we need to stay open to constructive feedback about our physical bodies if we want to get better at our sport. Here's the thing - you get to decide what's appropriate and what's not. Just because words come from the mouth of a person in power, doesn't mean they're true. It's never appropriate for a coach to talk about your body - or anyone's body - in a sexual or degrading way. Ever. The minute you feel unsettled or uneasy about the kind feedback you're receiving or the way in which it's being delivered, tell a trusted adult.

If you start to turn inward and feel like there's something wrong with your body, ask to talk to someone - a coach, therapist, trusted adult.

Your body is your own. Uniquely you. There is no 'ideal' body type that will guarantee success. Do you. Be you. Maximize your strengths. Love that body of yours - and thank it for carrying you this far. And while you need to stay open to feedback, you get to decide who's feedback matters - and who's doesn't. 

Keep no secrets. Know - your body is strong and fiercely capable.

~

Permission to be who you are

Your worth can never be measured. Ever.

You'll come across people who will want to quantify parts of you - based on what you 'do' - what you've achieved, etc. Here's the thing - that data doesn't capture who you are. They may try to figure out what you're capable of doing with your body - lean in and learn what you can. And know - they'll always fall short. Because, as hard as they try - they'll never be able to capture the strength of your heart - your deep curiosity - your drive.

You are worthy of love + belonging - without conditions. And capable beyond your wildest imagination. 

~

What would you say to your 17 year old self? 

 

 
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As women, the stats about our relationship with our bodies, confidence, shame, or worthiness - are sobering. So many of us - almost all of us - are buried underneath the weight of our inner critic - the voice inside our minds that tells us all the ways we're not enough. Many of us - afraid to let it go - believing that's what motivates us.

I get it. And, I know it's not.

You are powerful beyond measure - without that voice.

It's time to step back into the driver's seat of our lives. 

So we can stand firmly planted in our feet.

So we can reality check our stories.

Unapologetically free to be who we are. To take up space. To be seen. To be heard.

So we can ask for what we need - without guilt or shame.

So we can step into leadership roles - and into our worth.

So we can choose collaboration and compassion over competition and criticism. 

So we can experience greatness AND a healthy mind - body - soul.

If we want things to be different - we have to be willing to do something different. 

I believe that something starts inside our minds.

It starts when we give ourselves permission to release all that no longer serves us. 

 ~

I can't wait to invite you into the Rise Free Academy with me. Getting SO close!!

 If you are ready to quiet the noise and live your life with more balance, deeper joy - and inner peace, I see you. And I cannot wait to help you make these shifts - so you can step into a life that is fully your own.

So you can live FREE.  

More details coming soon!! Very soon!!

{insert happy dance}

~

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Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, transformational speaker, high performance coach, mama of four girls. 

Samantha empowers women to cultivate the courage, resilience and perseverance needed to live their dreams. She helps her clients let go of beliefs that are keeping them stuck - opening up the door for freedom, balance and joy that transcends.

Samantha candidly shares her battles with her inner critic, depression, perfection, PTSD and parenting as a working mother because she believes in the transformative power of story – and the strength that comes from knowing we are not alone. She is on a mission to pay forward all that she’s learned to help others find joy and live free.
  
A mama of heart warrior and mama of twins, Samantha and her husband, Rob, live in the Berkshires with their four girls. You can learn more about Samantha at www.samanthalivingstone.com.