Open Letter To Young Female Swimmers

*written in February to be published in the latest issue of Swim Swam magazine
Summer Sanders marked history at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, emerging as the most decorated U.S. swimmer, earning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Sanders transitioned into a successful television career in sports, news and entertainment, working for CBS, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, ESPN, FOX, MTV and Nickelodeon. Despite demands on her time as highly sought after television personality and host, Sanders has remained engaged with her swimming roots and family. She’s an active donor, served on the USA Swimming Foundation Board, and she has mentored countless swimmers. Moreover, behind the scenes, Sanders has advocated for more female leadership in the swimming community.  SwimSwam asked Sanders to write an open letter to young female swimmers. Thankfully she said yes.

Hello wonderful young women. I see you. I recognize you like I am looking in the mirror 35 years ago. I am familiar with your ambition and drive. I totally get your desire to be as perfect as you can be, every single day, without exception. I also see that you might be a bit shy and might be avoiding the spot light. Maybe that is why you chose swimming or why swimming chose you. But, I see you. And now, I want to hear you.

I love that you listen to your coach and that you are focused on the goals that have been laid out with precision. You need that and I know. But do you know why? Do you know why you warm-up the way you do? Do you have a sense of when your body needs rest or recovery? Do you know why you need to eat something packed full of protein and carbs right after workout?

And can you tell a healthy coach athlete relationship from an unhealthy one?

I just got serious. I know I did. You are probably thinking that you swim so you can check out from life. So you can control a few moments of your day without other pressures coming in and messing with the waters and now I have gone and ruined it. No, I haven’t, because most relationships are totally normal, or as normal as can be. I had amazing coaches. I always knew how lucky I was. But I also saw other girls who wouldn’t know what to do if their coaches weren’t right there. They were paralyzed and panicked as they couldn’t make their own decisions and that bothered me. My coaches taught me to be my own coach and have the answers to all of the “why’s” I just asked you.

See, knowledge is power and there is power in taking responsibility for the process. Some of you may already do this but many of you have yet to become active members in your training and your races. You are sitting back while letting someone else direct the mission. In doing so, you are missing out on part of the fun of your journey and a whole wealth of knowledge that will serve you when you go off to swim in college.  

Five years ago, the theme of any of my conversations or speeches aimed at inspiring a group of young women would be centered around “No deposit, No return.” (my coach, Mike Hastings’ saying) It was basic and brilliant. You get out what you put in. And you have the option to add to that account several times a workout sometimes twice a day. Hard work and dedication meant that when you stood on the blocks at the end of the season when it was “go time” you would have what you needed in the bank.

Now, the theme of any of my conversations or speeches aimed at inspiring a group of young women are centered around, “Finding your voice and practicing being bold.

Think about it for a second. Which of you, reading this right now, would ever choose to speak up in front of the class? Or would have the guts to stand-up vocally for a friend or an acquaintance in need? I am not asking you to be a hero. I am writing this to encourage you to think of your voice differently. Your voice is a tool, a very powerful tool. But this tool needs some training just like your strokes and turns.

Using your voice is a bit of a craft. You can’t just yell your thoughts and expect to be heard. And being heard is the goal. That is why you need to practice it. I always joke that nobody hears me in my family. Or, at least, the first 20 times I say it. Why is that? I now wait until they are looking at me. I don’t want to waste my voice and my words, especially if what I am saying is important. So practicing the words to use and when to use them in order to achieve your goal is very important. And the goal, one more time in case you didn’t hear me, is to be heard, understood, and received with respectful ears.

I am not asking you to change your personality; I am encouraging you to stand up for things now.

Speak up and use your voice instead of slouching down in your seat hoping not to be called upon. If it is uncomfortable, GOOD! If it scares you, GOOD!  This means you are putting yourself and your voice in a position to be better, and make a bigger, more positive difference. You don’t have to be a spokesperson. You don’t have to be in the limelight. I am not preparing you for that, but we do need more amazing young women like you to be a positive force in our world. Yes, you. You are needed. You can do anything you want to as long as you work hard.

Be the bravest, Be the strongest, Be the smartest, Be the loudest, Be you and make a difference. Now is YOUR time.

Congratulations to all of the amazing women who have made this sport a better, safer and wiser environment! I am especially proud of you Lindsay Mintenko (the new USA National Team Managing Director, featured on page 82). You have already proven yourself as an incredible leader!

Thank you SwimSwam for dedicating an issue to some of the amazing women in our sport! I looked up to many that came before me and here are a few Donna de Varona, Shirley Babashoff, Tracy Caulkins, Jenna Johnson, Whitney Hedgepeth, Mary T. Meagher and Debbie Meyer to name a few.

— Summer Sanders