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On leaving the sport that raised me

An athlete’s choice between her passion and her health

Everyone has a passion. I found mine in the water. Here I was at 18, representing the United States for the last time at the Swiss Open in a “creepy clown” inspired routine. (Courtesy of Walnut Creek Aquanuts)

I qualified for my first Olympic trials when I was 14 years old. Getting there was hard, but leaving the sport was harder.

Synchronized swimming (now artistic swimming), as Wikipedia defines it, is a “hybrid form of swimming, dance and gymnastics, consisting of swimmers performing a synchronized routine of elaborate moves in the water, accompanied by music.”

Some people still see synchronized swimming (synchro for short) as underwater dancing performed to 1950s showtunes, but to me, it was therapy. Slipping beneath the surface, creating chlorinated currents with a cupped hand — I felt powerful. A synchro swimmer is strong physically and mentally. We lift our teammates to new heights — figuratively and literally. It is the ultimate team sport.

Synchro was my home. My safe haven. My identity.

But synchro almost killed me. Athletics are a way of life and every sport has its hurdles. Mental health issues in athletics are hard to treat and Stanford offers some resources for its athletes in need, but what are you supposed to do if you were burnt out before you even got here?

Maybe you’re a synchro swimmer, maybe you’re a varsity athlete, maybe you’re someone with a passion for something that you’ve left behind. No matter what that passion is, you’ve likely had a love-hate relationship with it. This is mine.

Therapy

When I was in preschool, I spent a month bedridden with a Kawasaki-imitation disease followed by pneumonia. I was small for my age and suffered from severe asthma. The combination of these ailments set me up to focus on academics rather than athletics. Still, my parents wanted me to be recreationally active, so they signed me up for gymnastics and ballet.

But when I was nine, I was diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome (real-world double-jointedness). I spent a year off and on crutches while my overly flexible joints prohibited me from participating on the dance floor. The doctors said, “No land sports.” Luckily, my mother met the daughter of a synchro coach who convinced her that it would be a good sport for me to try.

By the time I turned 11, I had my sights set on Stanford. I swam before school, did my homework while I waited for the bus and trained until 9 p.m. before I went home, went to sleep and started all over again. (Courtesy of Tom Brassil)

I started at my local YMCA in Andover, Massachusetts. By the time I turned 11, I had been talent-identified, as the search for synchro swimmers across the nation grew to save the dying sport. From there, I participated in a series of USA National Team camps and trials, which brought me to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

Even though I did not make the 11-12 aged National Team, I knew I wanted to swim at Stanford some day. Stanford was and remains in the top two synchro schools in the nation. My parents came from nothing: My mother worked two jobs while pregnant with me to pay her way through law school and my father dropped out of college to become a firefighter. My grades weren’t going to be strong enough on their own, especially if I couldn’t afford tuition.

That’s when synchro swimming became my family’s life.

My mother picked up synchro coaching to aid our tiny team — but at some point, I started losing her as a mother. When I went home at night, we only talked about synchro or about the homework I needed to do. We used to fight over how I spent my time; if I wasn’t studying, I should be stretching. Mostly, we argued over my crippling shyness.

Through swimming, I learned how to express myself. After presenting myself in the pool, it translated elsewhere. In middle school, I made new friends. I flirted back when pre-pubescent boys talked to me. I befriended my teammates. My presentation in the water carried me a long way — so far that my family realized the small club team where I started couldn’t sustain my drive.

I became well-known for my presentation in the water. This solo, which I competed in as a 13-15 at Nationals, in Spain and at the following Junior Nationals, became one of my most well-known routines. (Courtesy of Roger Sommer for USA Synchro)

When I was 14, after realizing that my scores at Nationals qualified me to try out for the first phase of the 2012 Olympic trials, my mother started speaking to other coaches at a talent-identification camp. Although I had been invited to try out for a lot of National Teams, I had never made the final cut. My mother decided it was time to ship me out west to train with one of the best synchronized swimming teams in the country: the Walnut Creek Aquanuts.

My mother told me that I could either stay in Massachusetts and never swim again or move across the country. Above all, she said she hoped it would give us the space we needed to repair our relationship.

My family sacrificed togetherness for me. My father was able to move because he is a disabled firefighter, meaning he wasn’t tied to Massachusetts, where my mother is still a civil attorney. (GILLIAN BRASSIL/The Stanford Daily)

Three weeks after that camp, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Moraga, California with my father, but I wasn’t the first synchro swimmer to move West. Most of my coaches had done the same thing, and many of them have at least one Olympic title.

California

My freshman year of high school, I didn’t make any friends at school; instead, I devoted myself entirely to synchro. I did my homework in the library during lunch. I only ate meals during car rides — always the same: milk for breakfast, peanut butter sandwich for lunch and chicken with broccoli and carrots for dinner. Swimming 30 hours per week, I would have my father take me to the pool to swim on my own when I didn’t have practice.

I landed a spot on my first National Team that year. Instead of competing for them, however, I went on to represent the U.S. at the most highly regarded competition in the world for swimmers under age 15: the Mediterranean Cup. Although I placed well and left a strong impression on the international community, the most important thing I gained in Torrevieja, Spain was friendships with swimmers from all over the world. I was reminded that despite political differences, these swimmers could come together for the love of synchro.

That reminder helped me come out of my shell and further fueled my passion. I visited my mother and found that our relationship had greatly recovered. I started building bonds with other kids at school. I started chatting with my teammates about things unrelated to synchro. I was set up for a happier year in California.

My skills were what made me known internationally. Above is a picture of me performing a “split rocket,” one of many figures which synchro swimmers compete in individually to be added to our routine scores. (Courtesy of Walnut Creek Aquanuts)

Dark clouds

Synchro had been my therapy, but when I was 15, I was torn from it with multiple injuries. I fractured a rib but continued to swim. I recovered with a mild misshappenness, but the real trouble came when I tried to front-flip into the pool and landed headfirst on the deck instead.

I remember my teammates crying while one of them held my blood-covered swim cap. I was too shocked to cry. Strapping me to a backboard, the lifeguard pulled me out of the water amid the faint sound of blaring sirens. My coach was tear-stricken on the phone with my father. It was winter. I was shivering in my swimsuit and the paramedics kept asking me what day it was and how many fingers they were holding up as they loaded me into the ambulance.

My tears came when they called my mother and she started yelling at me over the phone, “Are you stupid? I told you this would happen.” That phone call left me numb.

The doctors stapled my head shut, no anesthesia required.

But the worst part of it was that I wasn’t allowed to swim for the next 10 days. Nationals were in 14. For the first time since the beginning of my freshman year, a sadness clouded my vision. I was disappointed in myself, my relationship with my mother was on edge and I felt like I was letting my team down.

Still, 10 days passed and I not only competed in, but also placed well in, all the events I had intended to at Nationals, going on to earn a spot on the Junior National Team for that summer.

After three days of training, I went on to compete in the team, duet, solo and individual categories at the 2013 Junior Nationals. This is me and my duet partner, who I lived with in my senior year of high school. (Courtesy of Brian Horii)

But that safety didn’t follow me to Riverside, California, where I was training with the National Team. Already hindered by asthma in the dry, southern California air, I decided to try something I’d only tried once before: having someone backflip off of my shoulders.

I had jumped off of people’s shoulders before, but I’d never had someone jump off of mine. The National Team coach, whose harsh style of coaching preceded her, was making us do a punishment set. I was too afraid to say that I wasn’t ready to serve as a springboard, so at the end of a long, hard practice, in an attempt to impress my coach, I let my teammate attempt take a leap of faith off of me.

I don’t clearly remember what happened next.

Someone pulled me to the surface. I remember hearing “come to the wall” and I complied. A few days later, I was tested for a concussion. The doctor said not only was I severely concussed, but also I likely had a brain bleed. I’m lucky to be writing this article for you today.

My mother flew out to take care of me — a bonding moment for us — but when she went home, I was left alone in the team cottages with my concussed thoughts. They weren’t happy ones.

Searing headaches made it hard for me to be awake for more than three hours at a time. I had no hobbies, no television that I was able to watch.

That’s when I realized I was not only lost without swimming, I was dependent on it.

The trick that left me so injured was an attempt at what we call a lift. I had jumped off of people’s shoulders before, as pictured above, but that was my first experience having someone jump off of mine in a routine. Eventually, I recovered and went on to have people jump off of my shoulders in the future. (Courtesy of Brian Horii)

An identity

I tried to get in the pool two months later, but the water pressure drove sharp pains through my brain, so I left the National Team behind and visited Andover for the first time in nine months. I pushed myself through National Team trials to make the 2014 Junior National Team — a team that was expected to build the foundation for the 2016 Olympic team — but my efforts in those tryouts led me to collapse in my classes at school. I went to a brain doctor, who told me I should end my synchro career or risk never recovering.

For a while, I held onto my identity. I pushed myself harder in the pool, training up to 45 hours per week, fueled by my desire to compete at Junior Worlds in Helsinki, Finland. I often ignored the pains in my head, taking the medicine which the doctors prescribed to stimulate brain cell repair.

As part of the National Team, I competed in Helsinki, Finland, at Junior Worlds. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I completely recovered from my concussion around then, too. (Courtesy of Kari Pajunen for FINA)

Ultimately, I turned down my spot on the 2016 Olympic team after I was recruited by Stanford. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but it showed me something that I had previously undervalued: synchro-life balance.

I returned to my high school and the Walnut Creek Aquanuts. I still swam before and after school for at least 35 hours per week, but I contributed more vocally in class and in the pool. My relationship with synchro felt healthier. The promise of swimming at a world-class academic institution like Stanford meant that I would be able to be more than a swimmer again. Although I came in second when the Aquanuts competed at Nationals, my team won and I enjoyed the journey. We competed in Switzerland that summer; it was the last time I would carry the American flag for my country.

My coaches raised me to be a strong, independent woman. Two of my coaches attended my high school graduation in lieu of my parents, and my coaches found out I was accepted to Stanford before my parents did. (Courtesy of Kari Pajunen for FINA)

At Stanford

Once I got to Stanford, I realized that not only was collegiate synchro very different from National Teams, college-Gillian was very different from old-Gillian. I had access to something I never had growing up: time to build real relationships outside the pool, and a desire to do so.

Practice was capped at 20 hours per week under NCAA rules, allowing me more time to focus on the side of me which thrives outside of the pool. The atmosphere at practice was more relaxed. But often, practice felt like a chore. I loved my Stanford teammates and coaches, so why didn’t I like what I was doing?

This dissonance stuck with me. I still defined myself as a synchro swimmer, but people started to like me before they realized I swam. I stayed up until 4 a.m. with my friends despite my 5:15 a.m. alarm. I could have dedicated myself to synchro more, but I didn’t want to. I was burned out from doing the only thing I knew how to do as a kid.

But I was afraid to quit. I kept swimming through my first three years at Stanford. In the end, it took time away from Stanford for me to realize that your identity is never set and that no one expects you to be the same person you always were.

My junior spring, my uncle overdosed on heroin and died. I got the phone call that he was brain dead around midnight on Thursday. I stayed up all night and got a bus ticket home from New York City so that I could be there after we pulled him off life support.

My family recognized that I was no longer a child, and they turned to me for advice. I helped choose the photos we used on the funeral cards; I edited the obituary for the paper. I carried my uncle’s 31-year-old son with cerebral palsy down the steps of the church. I drove the leading car in the funeral procession.

Ultimately, I realized that although synchro shaped me into the woman I am, I am more than it now.

That tragedy helped me understand that I had the strength to leave the sport that raised me. The only person standing in my way was me.

My first year at college, Stanford Synchro won the NCAA National Championships. Despite this success, I still didn’t have the same passion for synchro that I once had. (Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

I stopped swimming this fall. After two full-fledged concussions, multiple broken bones and lots of heartache, I left the sport that taught me how to speak — taught me that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything. It taught me how to build the best relationships I’ve ever had.

Synchro is always with me, just in a different capacity. I can happily reflect on both the good and bad times, even if they were just … times. I’m forever grateful for the people and training that molded me into the person I am today.

Although it’s been a while since I’ve competed, the lessons that synchronized swimming taught me have translated into everything I do. That’s something I’ll never lose.

The relationships I built through swimming were life-lasting. Above is my last international performance with my last duet partner, who remains one of my best friends to this day; I celebrate Thanksgiving with her family almost every year. (Courtesy of Walnut Creek Aquanuts)

Contact Gillian Brassil at gbrassil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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