I’m now an Apprentice Official with US Swimming, and so I’m getting a bit deeper into the world of competitive swimming. I met a dad yesterday who told me his daughter has been on the team since she was four.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean for this post to judge that family at all. His daughter wasn’t swimming in the same session as mine, so I didn’t see her swim, but her dad told me about her, and her achievements are impressive. And I don’t know the kid or her dad at all. Every kid is different, and every family is different, and I assume he’s making the best decisions he can for the kid he is parenting, just as I’m making the best decisions I can for my kid.

But the conversation, and another I heard about balancing achievement and burn-out, at a session where the oldest kids present were twelve, got me thinking about the sport and our own decisions regarding our Kid. So I’m going to use what little I know about this girl from one conversation to illustrate the path we didn’t take, so I can think about what that path might have been like for my Kid, had we chosen it. And for the sake of argument, let’s get talent right off the table now.

It’s possible that this girl and my Kid are just on completely different paths. This girl might be one of the most talented swimmers in the country, and her achievements might have more to do with that than the hard work she’s put in over the past six years. The fact is, the jury is still out on both girls’ talent. We won’t know for sure until their careers are over, if then. The only way we’ll ever know if talent is a factor here is if my Kid surpasses this girl, and even then we’d have to factor in burn-out and puberty (which can have a wicked impact on girls’ swimming development, depending on when it hits and, er, how. Girls’ bodies are much more hydrodynamic than women’s bodies, and awkwardness, defiance, cramps and dating can all impact a girl’s willingness to practice.) So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that both girls are equally gifted.

At this moment, it seems I cheated my Kid out of quite a lot, swimming-wise. My Kid is still learning the rules of US Swimming. She’s building up her cardio capacity to swim 50-, 100-, and 200-yard races, where previously her longest races were 25 meters. And she’s learning the whole routine and rhythm of attending a large invitational. Out of three meets, she’s been disqualified five times, missed a race, scratched a race, withdrawn from a race, and finished with times so low they aren’t even categorized by US Swimming every time she’s qualified except once, when she received the lowest possible rating. I don’t mean to be overly harsh, here. The Kid is just starting out, she’s learned a TON in three meets, and I’m enormously proud of her fortitude, her hard work, and of the fact that she’s beaten her qualifying time almost every time she’s gone out there, even when she DQ-ed. Her improvement since joining this team two short months ago has been astronomical, and I don’t want to short-change that, but just starting out is just starting out, and that’s where my Kid is right now.

As I said, I don’t know much about this other girl, but I do know that she’s been to some Regional meets, she’s meeting Gold times in at least some events in her age group, and she swam a 1650 (One thousand, six hundred and fifty yards. That’s 34 laps of the pool.) in under twenty minutes this weekend. At ten years old. Holy hell.

So that’s a pretty significant difference. My Kid could probably complete a 1650, but not at any good pace, and she hasn’t trained enough to have any kind of strategy for a race of that kind.

But then I think about this girl, and I realize she probably does not remember a time when swimming was not as important in her life as school. My Kid has spent her time–the time she might have been at swim practice–doing amazing and mundane things. Things like drafting most of a novel, or climbing trees, or playing with friends, or reading, or watching TV with her parents. Instead of going to swim meets, we’ve been going on hikes, or to Star Trek conventions, or watching movies and playing board games.

Only time will tell if we’ve handicapped our Kid’s swim potential. Or maybe we’ll never know. I guess we’ll never know if she might have won an Olympic medal unless she wins one.