Note: Race Archibald, a swimmer at EIU, has written for Coles County Sports since its inception 20 months ago. He just finished his final collegiate season and believes his experiences have prepared him for a new challenge — working as a sports journalist.

Youth sports provide an opportunity for kids to allow them to be active, work within a team, set goals, and, most importantly, to have fun.

Sports give kids an opportunity to attack the challenges of everyday life through physical activity, and provide obstacles and challenges for them to overcome. It is instrumental in the development of young athletes.

It has been no different for myself. I have been swimming for 16 years, including the last four at Eastern Illinois. My swim career, and the many challenges it has presented, has shaped me into the person I am today. 

Let’s dive right in.

For as long as I can remember, most of my free time has been spent in the pool. 

I began swimming when I was 6 in the fall of 2005. My older sister competed for the Howard-Suamico Stormbreakers, located just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, I wanted to join, too. I was also encouraged by my mother, who swam in high school. It was on this team where my love for the sport began.

Not only did I love to swim, but I was good at it. I set a number of 6-and-under and 8-and-under team records in the breaststroke events.  One record that stood out, the 8-and-under 200 meter breaststroke. It wasn’t my time that was impressive, it was the fact that I swam that event at this age.

This showed I was made to swim. I was bold enough to do the longer events despite my age. 

My first real taste of success in the sport came when I was 10 years old. In February 2010 at the Wisconsin winter state championships. I had qualified in five events in the 10-and-under age group. 

I didn’t expect going into this state meet that I would be seeded inside the top eight in both breaststroke events. The top eight finishers at the state meet got recognized in front of everyone on a podium, and received medals. I thought it was such a big deal to make the podium. To be a part of the best swimmers in my age group, would be a special feeling. It was my number one goal to finish in the top eight in my breaststroke events.

Mission accomplished.

I finished fifth place in the 50 breaststroke, and eighth place in the 100 breaststroke, making it to the podium twice. In the 100, I actually finished in ninth, but the eighth-place finisher got disqualified, which bumped me up. I remember my sister running to tell me as I sat in the stands, crying and disappointed, “Race you made it!!!” My tears quickly dried up as I screamed excitedly.

I’m on the far right in the blue jacket. You can’t tell from the picture but I was thrilled to have made top 8.

It was after this state meet, I knew I had a future in swimming.

In addition to having success in the pool, it was equally as fun outside of the pool. There were a lot of kids my age on the team, and it was always fun to be around the pool. We all traveled together to swim meets, and had a blast hanging out with each other, while having success in the pool.

One of my favorite relays I swam on, we finished in third place in the 200 freestyle relay at the 2010 state championships.

However, I ended up switching teams in 2011. HSSB was fun and all, but there was an opportunity to join a “better” team. When I say better, I really mean a bigger team, with faster swimmers. There was nothing wrong with HSSB, but some of us were serious about wanting to improve, and this new team could provide that.

I was so dedicated to the sport, I began to think about my future in swimming. This was where I realized I wanted to swim full time, and try to swim at the college level.

We were able to meet up again in 2017 at the same pool we finished third in.

Myself, along with a number of teammates, joined the Green Bay YMCA swim team (GBY). As I mentioned, this team was bigger, and faster than HSSB. At first I was overwhelmed, I didn’t think I could last on this team, but I settled in, and got back to work.

I missed out on a top eight finish at the 2012 winter state championships in the 200 breastroke, finishing just outside in ninth place.

I was crushed. 

I went into the locker room, emptied my swim bag, threw my stuff around, broke my goggles, and cried. I was dead set on getting top eight, and the fact that I didn’t accomplish my goal was devastating. 

Nonetheless, I moved on, and simply restarted the cycle, as I moved up to the 13-14 age group.

However, I didn’t qualify for the next two state meets, and began to question my ability in the sport.

It was so deflating because I was the only one out of my teammates and friends who didn’t qualify for the state meet. It was embarrassing to me.

I was still set on replicating that feeling I had when I was 10, of finishing inside the top eight at the state meet, but I knew that goal was fading. The swimmers around me began to grow bigger and taller, while I remained thin and visibly weaker.

As a kid, I was always on the thinner side. Looking back at some photos of myself, I can’t believe how skinny I was. It wasn’t something I was too embarrassed about, but I was teased from time to time about my thin frame, and I certainly looked small compared to other swimmers. People kept telling me “Race, you need to eat!” 

I didn’t take much offense to it, but it is something I thought about later on in my swim career.

I never wanted to quit swimming, I was having too much fun.

I was a part of a group of swimmers that had been together for a few years. We were all friends, and enjoyed being in the pool together. No matter how hard practices were, or how upset our coach was with us, we still had fun.

A few of my friends that I had been with since I began swimming. They are what made swimming fun.

It was an important reminder to me that it is just as important to have fun, as it is to swim fast. Being surrounded by your friends made the stress from tough practices go away. 

I would be reminded of this lesson in a few years.

High school came around, and I was excited to join the high school team. We were one of the best teams in our conference, and enjoyed a lot of success.

I changed club teams again, joining the Door County YMCA 50 miles north from home. Under the direction of a great breaststroke coach, I was able to fix my stroke and get back to the way I wanted to swim…

However, the switch to this team wasn’t easy. I had new teammates, and away from my friends who I only saw at swim meets that we both went to. It was also time consuming, since it was an hour drive back and forth to practice. I did this every day for as long as I was a part of this team. But my times were dropping, so it was worth it to put in the extra time and work.

In my high school career, we won two conference titles, and one sectional title.

Arguably the most fun I’ve ever had swimming was during high school. We had a lot of success and had multiple future college swimmers on the team.

I set out two personal goals for myself in my last two years before I went to college – qualify for the high school state swim meet in the 100 breaststroke and for the YMCA national swim meet. 

Before I talk about those two goals, there is one more important detail to share.

In the summer of 2016, between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided to go back to my original team in Green Bay because I began to miss being around my friends. I was still having success, but life outside the pool  wasn’t as much fun. It began to feel like a chore traveling the long distance..

I missed being around the group of guys that I had grown up with in Green Bay.

They were as thrilled as I was when I told them I was coming back. My old coach welcomed me back with open arms, and it was back to focusing on my two goals.

The first of my two goals to accomplish was qualifying for the high school state swim meet in the 100 breaststroke.

I failed.

My next goal was to qualify for the YMCA national swim meet in the 100 breaststroke.

I failed.

I had worked so hard to come within striking distance of these goals, but came up short.

I was devastated being one of the only ones out of my friend group to not qualify for the YMCA national swim meet.

The week after the final meet that senior year, and I spent most of spring break in my basement sad, and once again doubting my swim abilities as college was around the corner.

Still, I was still eager to attack the next challenge that was college swimming.

In November 2016, I was committed to Eastern Illinois University because I wanted to swim for a Division I school, despite the talent level between the three divisions not being as large in other sports. I thought it was cool to say I would swim at this level.

I set another personal goal in my freshman year, to break 1 minute in the 100 breaststroke. My best time going into the season was 1:01.91. My time at the Summit League conference championships was 1:01.55, good for last place. I was the only swimmer on the men’s team to not swim in the finals session.

I didn’t feel like I belonged at the college swimming level.

It was at this point where I said enough is enough. I got sick of failing. So I needed to do something about it.

I thought to myself “What is the one area in swimming where I struggle the most?”

The answer was easy, the weight room.

I wasn’t the skeleton-like figure that I was 8 years prior, but I certainly lacked the strength necessary to perform well.

That summer after my freshman year in college, I stuck to a strict lifting program for the first time in my life, which provided results. 

The first dual meet back in my sophomore year, I swam a best time, a rarity for the first meet in swimming.

I continued to drop time at every meet, and it all led up to me breaking 1 minute in my 100 breaststroke midway through the season.

It was a feeling that I had not experienced in a long time. 

I set a goal, and accomplished it. 

That season set the table for consistent performances from myself over the final two years of my swim career. I carved out a secure role on the team, in being a reliable breaststroker the team could count on to deliver a solid performance every meet.

That was always my goal as a college swimmer. To be a reliable performer, and to have everyone know what you’re going to get out of me every practice and every meet.

It’s all I wanted when I decided to swim college. I wanted to prove I could belong at the Division I level, and I believe I have. I still look back at my old times and wonder how I got to this point.

In my last meet, we finished third in the 400 medley relay, earning my first and only medal in college.

Despite my failures and setbacks, I always looked ahead to the next opportunity. Swimming is a sport you don’t have to wait long for a second chance. It’s what kept me going, and why I never considered quitting. 

In sports, it’s important to set goals, because this is what gives participating in sports at the amatuer level importance. There’s no money on the line. Youth sports are all about achieving goals and wanting to feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s a lesson young athletes can learn and apply to their everyday life.

Last week, I competed in my final swim meet, at the Summit League conference championships. I set and achieved multiple goals over the course of the week with relative ease. My past experiences and preparation gave me the confidence to achieve these goals.

Swimming has prepared me for the real world. I was able to overcome failure in some capacity, and I came out better for it. It has also given me the confidence in order to thrive in the sports journalism industry.

The first step in my career will be in Dickinson, North Dakota, where I will work for The Dickinson Press as a sports reporter. I am beyond thrilled to get started, and will be taking all of the life lessons I have learned from swimming with me.

I will cherish all of the memories, friendships, and good times that have come from swimming. These moments have been so vital in my personal growth, and I wouldn’t trade these last 16 years for anything in the world.