By Annemarie Shrouder
When we meet someone, we make some assumptions and decisions about who we think they are. It is automatic – some of it conscious and some unconscious. What we do with those first seconds can shape our responses, our words, our treatment of them, and ultimately our connection (or lack thereof). They can also shape outcomes and possibilities. I learned this as an athlete, and it changed my life.
I was an athlete in high school. Despite my height of six feet, it wasn’t basketball or volleyball I excelled at, it was track and field. I was a 100m sprinter, a hurdler, and a high jumper. In my last year of high school, the school started a swim team, which I joined and enjoyed as well. And being an athlete was an important part of my identity.
When I moved on to University after taking a year off, I discovered, to my dismay, that there was no track team. My only option was to swim, and I decided to try out.
I showed up for tryouts in a pink and black leopard print bathing suit with a scooped back. All the other girls were wearing swim suits: criss-cross backed blue or black Speedos. Not me. In addition, I was the only non-White person on the deck – so not only was my bathing suit a beacon for my inexperience, my skin colour attracted some attention as well. Contrary to track and field, in a North American context, swimming was (and continues to be) a very White sport. I did not know this. All eyes turned and conversations stopped momentarily as I walked out of the change-room. I had a moment’s pause, and tried to make myself as small as I could – not easy when you’re six feet tall. I was thankful when it was time to get into the pool.
But things got worse. I didn’t know the rules of swimming etiquette, I couldn’t execute a proper flip turn, and I was slow. By the end of the tryout, I had moved from the fast lane (where my track experience suggested I should be) to the slow lane, made a lot of swimmers angry, and was still trying to catch my breath at the edge of the pool. I was embarrassed, and I wanted to disappear.
That could have been the end of my swimming career, but it wasn’t. I bought myself a swimsuit and went back for tryout part 2.
I could feel the stares and the questions when I showed up the next day. But I did my stretching, put on my cap and goggles, and got into the pool. Sadly, but predictably, it was just as bad as the day before; I was still slow, still in the way, and still not a ‘real’ swimmer. But at the end of the tryout, something magical happened: the head coach, Alan Fairweather, took me aside and told me that although he couldn’t put me on the competitive team, if I was serious about swimming, he could put me on the B team; I could come to morning practices which were much less crowded, and he would work with me.
I took him up on his offer.
Four years later my 50-freestyle time qualified me to swim in the Canadian Inter-University Athletic Union competition – where my swim landed me in the top 10!
Although I didn’t continue with swimming, 13 years later (in 1996) I decided to train for the first international OUTgames in Montreal. When I qualified, I returned to the University pool for a check-in with my former coach, who helped me correct a few key things in my stroke mechanics. I competed in many events at the OUTgames, winning gold medals in six, including two relays.
My takeaway from that experience was profound. My coach saw everything the swimmers did at those tryouts, but he also saw my potential. And his ability to see more meant that I was given the opportunity to not only learn something new, but excel at it – and contribute. That experience changed my life, and taught me a very important lesson about what we think we see and know about each other, how that can get in the way, the consequences of it, and how important it is to see more. It has shaped how I live, and how I do my work.
In every blogpost I write, workshop I facilitate, speech I deliver, or consulting project I lead, my passion is to challenge people to see more – more of themselves, each other, and situations. So that we can be open to opportunity, possibility and people’s brilliance, and create spaces where people can thrive.
Seeing more is like a muscle – if we practice, it gets stronger.
If this is of interest to you, please sign up for my weekly Inclusion Insight on my homepage: www.annemarieshrouder.com. Once you sign up, it will arrive directly in your inbox, give you something to think about in a different way, and a challenge for the week so you can practice seeing more.