The Defeat That Changed My Life

 
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Even though the bins held remnants of my life, moments I lived, I wasn't prepared for what was inside. 

I had never seen this moment before. At least not without my perfectionist armor on.

It was August of 2000. We were one month out from the Olympic Games in Sydney. But first, U.S. Olympic Trials - no easy feat in the sport of swimming – a sport the U.S. has dominated for generations. The difference between becoming an Olympian forever – or not – is often measured in hundredths-of-a-second. Less than a blink of an eye.

Three years of incredible sacrifice. Twelve months of ten practices a week - and five more in the weightroom. A deferred college admission to stay home and train. Thousands of hours in the car. A family that gave everything to support me. A tribe that had my back.

With so much sacrifice and so much hard behind me, I showed up to Indianapolis BELIEVING I could win.

Walking onto the pool deck, I knew the past was behind me - and that the only thing I could control was what happened in that moment.

This was the first Olympiad for the prelims - semifinals  - finals format in swimming. A big jump from the previous format of prelims – finals. I was ready.

At 18 years old, I was three swims away.

I put up the fastest time in prelims of the 200m freestyle, giving me a center lane for semifinals that night, securing my spot in the top 16.

My dream of becoming an Olympian was right in front of me.

To earn a spot on the Olympic team in the 200m freestyle, you have finish in the top four of the final heat – only the top two swimmers get to compete in the individual event.

I prepared to win. I wanted that individual event. I was chasing down a ten-year-old dream

I had the fastest time coming out of semifinals. Sixteen down to eight.

One swim away.

The night of finals, I was relaxed. Confident. Locked in. I hadn't unloaded to the next level in either of my first two swims. 

I was ready.

Top seed. Center lane.

I believed.

For the first 100 meters of the race, I was completely in my body - in the moment - in the zone. And out front. I don't remember any of it. When I flipped at the final wall, I knew. This was it. Final lap.

With 15 meters to go, I felt my body tighten up. The mental chatter started to pick up. Even though it was positive, my arms and legs wouldn't move any faster. I could see Lindsay to my right.

When my hand hit the wall, I had no idea what place I finished. I knew it was close.

3 LN4 Arsenault, Samantha

Third. Third place. The biggest defeat of my career.  The moment my dream to compete in an individual event at the Olympic Games got away.

And

 This was the moment I became an Olympian. 

Emotion swept over me like a tidal wave and I had no idea how to handle it.

Shocked. Humbled. Numb. Proud. Devastated. Defeated. Honored. 

The first person I saw when I got out of the water was my drug tester. I remember hearing her say “Congratulations!” I felt nothing and everything all at once.

In the warm down pool, I hovered above my body. Everything felt so surreal.

Nothing about this moment felt like I imagined it would.

On the silent walk through the back hallways of the pool, my inner critic emerged. 

A massive shift from the intrinsic pulls of chasing a dream.

A voice born out of perfection.

You missed your shot. You blew it. This doesn't count.

You don't belong.  

I couldn't make eye contact with my coach. I felt like I let him down.

In a matter of minutes, I was standing in front of thousands of cheering fans, getting my picture taken and hand painted for the mosaic wall of Olympians. My handprint joining those of my idols - my heroes. Still feeling outside of my body, I sat behind a microphone and answered questions at my first press conference. 

Is this what it's supposed to feel like? 

What happened in those final 15 meters? Why couldn't I kick it into that next gear?

I wanted to run and hide. And. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

My dream came true - just not in the way I imagined it.

I was numb for days. I had no patience for the excitement swirling around me - because in the quiet moments when I was alone with myself, all I could hear were the jarring words of my inner critic. 

It wasn't enough, the voice declared. You aren’t one of them. You’re just a relay swimmer. You don't belong.

In less than three years, I went from an above-average New England swimmer who was on the verge of quitting the sport forever to the 6th fastest 200m freestyler in the world.

And now, I was an Olympian.

With this new voice I didn't know how to handle.

It took me 16 years to fully free myself from the life-sucking grip of perfection – to fully embrace my accomplishments. To fully own all parts of me. To unbox my Olympic gear.

To stand in that title – Olympian.

I’m still uncovering pieces of my story.

My mom was watching me stare at this picture - tears streaming down my face. For this moment. 

Tears for this young girl who believed the harsh words of the inner critic. Who believed she wasn’t worthy of belonging.   

Tears for the missed opportunity to feel joy – and soak in this magical moment as it unfurled.

Tears for this young girl who spent too many years living buried under shame – afraid to share her accomplishments. Feeling like she was a fraud – unworthy of her own successes.

Tears for the years of darkness ahead of her – driven by the growing grip of perfection.

Tears for the young girl – and mother she grew to be – who believed her best wasn’t enough.

Tears of gratitude for the entire journey.

And, tears of joy for the woman she’s grown to be.

Bravely sharing her truths. Living unapologetically free. Paying forward all she's learned.

~

For the first time in 17 years, my mom shared her version of this race. Even though she knew how it ended, I could hear the nervousness in her voice as she recounted the first 100 meters – when I flipped at the halfway mark ahead of world-record pace.

She had tears in her eyes reliving that moment with me. Tears of pride. Deep joy. Relief. And pain. Because, she knew how hard that moment was for me.

And, in her eyes I could see the unconditional love of a mother.

~

There's power in stepping back - and becoming a witness to our own life. 

As I held this picture, and relived that moment, I held my 18 year-old-self. Because, she's still part of me. No longer buried underneath the heavy armor of perfection.

Releasing perfection allowed me to step into my worthiness.

If I could go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, there’s so much I’d share with her.

Above all – I would hold up a mirror – with an unobstructed view - so she could SEE the greatness inside of her.

I’ve had to edit many stories - narratives that were written by the inner critic, untruths. I've had to release beliefs that were keeping me from fully feeling my worthiness.

It's still a work in progress. That's just it. There's no such thing as perfection. Or arriving a place with no struggle. The self-talk doesn't go away. It changes. If you do the hard work. 

It's not work I've done alone. It's not work we do alone. 

~

I now see an 18 year-old girl who bravely went after her childhood dream. Who answered the call, unleashing her inner magic. A girl who showed up to do the work.

I see a girl who had a tribe of love + support behind her.

A girl who was capable beyond her wildest imagination.

And worthy, without conditions.

I see that in you, too.

You are wildly capable. And worthy without conditions.

~

What beliefs do you need to edit? What would shift for you?

What would you say to your 18-year-old self?

 

In January of 2018, I will be weaving together my passion and skill set to offer my first online course via The Compassion Project - bringing together a community of women and men who value growth and authenticity. Together we will cultivate the courage, compassion and connection we need to live our dreams. To bring meaning to our life in a way that sets our soul on fire. To live unapologetically free.

 To be in the know - and to receive a free gift this Friday {because I'm too excited to wait!}, head over here to stay connected!

Creating this platform has been on my heart for years.

It's time. I hope you join me. 

~

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Samantha Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, transformational speaker, high performance coach and mama of four.  She inspires and empowers others to cultivate the courage, resilience and perseverance needed to let go of perfection and other limiting beliefs so they can live their dream. 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.