Regaining Stolen Happiness

I was there, but yet I wasn’t there. My arm threw itself over the lane rope, while my feet reflexively kicked up so that my mouth remained above the surging waves that followed me into the wall. It took a few seconds of just breathing, before my fading tunnel vision opened up again and my senses began to fully return. 

They brought with them the gradual onset of burning lungs and dying limbs that ached ever more excruciatingly from committing to sprinting, without breathing, for the entire race. As the life returned to my floating corpse with the oxygen, the world around me announced itself, at first with the water, then the bright lights, the other competitors, and the massive indoor arena with tens of thousands of Chinese spectators watching the World Championship Finals. The relief quickly gave way to curiosity. 

I lifted my goggles up to my forehead to see more clearly. A commotion over in the middle lanes caught my attention with screaming, splashing and waving—an obscene victory celebration was underway. The scoreboard at the other end became the focal point of my confused curiosity. “Did lane one place seventh, or did lane seven place first?” I struggled to come to terms with the former, and the disappointment of this painfully returning reality.

It had happened again. This race had not been won, but stolen by a cheater from those who rightfully deserved it. The splashing and flexing winner, a few lanes over, had weeks before tested positive for doping along with three other Brazilian swimmers. Days before the race, the Court for Arbitration for Sport had controversially handed him an unprecedentedly lenient warning, allowing him to compete at those FINA 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. 

I dragged myself out of the pool, past the cameras and reporters, and hurriedly away from the disgusting spectacle that had become a show and not a competition. Torturous thoughts consumed my existence. Why was I punishing myself like this? Why I had sacrificed and endured so much? Surely there were easier and more satisfying ways to spend this short life than being cursed with singlemindedly chasing illusory goals, only to be cheated out of them? And why continue to do this to myself, when I know it would surely happen again?

The cheaters were winning. It was undeniable. Since I would never consider cheating, the possibility of winning the Olympic Gold medal the following year, in London faded. Despite my best efforts, I believed that my definition of success would be impossible. For the first time, I became afraid that the end would not justify the means, and that I would look back and regret that I had wasted my time trying. The single-minded paradigm with which I had approached my entire life crumbled to pieces.

After all, what was it about the idea of that medal that I had gotten so consumed by? I began to remember my own direct experience of an Olympic Medal and in doing so unyoked myself from society’s notion of one. I reflected upon the Athens Olympic medal that I had wanted so badly. Before receiving it on the podium, I had imagined that I needed it, the way I required air. I had believed that somehow, if I could win one, I would be complete. 

I was deluded by the notion that it would justify my existence and surely make me happy forever. However, when I took it off for the first time, it was satisfying to observe its ancient beauty and feel its substantial weight, but there was no real happiness to be found in it; it was just another object. The materialism of society instills discontent in us all, by pressuring us from a young age to believe that we are lacking things, and that we are all insufficient in some way. 

Thus making us good consumers. This belief that happiness was something to be gained externally had blinded me from the truth of my own inward discontent. An Olympic Gold medal, like an Olympic bronze medal would just be another object, and would never cure the discontent that needs an end to justify the means. 

This epiphany suddenly freed me from the bondage of needing a specific goal to justify swimming, or to justify anything. I was no longer caught up in desperately seeking the destination and was now completely free to enjoy the journey for its own sake. Free at last! There was no longer a destination to be cheated out of. I resolved then and there to pursue sport for its own sake, simply for the exciting, healthy and interesting way of life that it provides. 

Shortly after, when faced with a brain injury that left me bedridden months before the London Olympics, it was the easy equanimity of this new perspective on life that enabled me to thrive in the journey and fight back to reach the finals, and subsequently win two World Championship and dozens of World Cup medals after. 

Sadly, I believe the cheaters are still doping, but I no longer feel as if they are stealing my happiness.  @georgebovell