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Courtesy of Olivia Ekberg
Olivia Ekberg is photographed with her team.

The following is first in a two-part series about Olivia Ekberg. Read the second part of the story here.

I’m sitting on the edge of a swimming pool in Charlottesville, Virginia, analyzing the movements of a 14-year-old synchronized swimmer. This day marks the two-year anniversary of standing on the biggest stage in the world of synchronized swimming. It creates a mixture of feelings for me, putting certain truth to the phrase “bittersweet.”

I’m doing less in my life these days; slowing down a bit; simplifying. I’ve spent a year and a half just learning to breathe above the water again, and for an athlete ready to compete at the Olympic Games, that was an impossible task. But taking my first breath of fresh air was a whole new beginning.

As I sit and morph this athlete in front of me with my corrections, there is no place I would rather be. I can’t help but admire her dedication and big dreams. It reminds me of a teenage me.

When I began my international debut in the synchronized swimming world at the age of 12, it was because I loved the sport. By the time I walked onto the world stage at 17, it was because I had a responsibility. I was a ghost, hiding within the shell of a champion, molded from years of quiet bathroom tears and muscle memory. It took the hand of God to take me off the Olympic road and on to scale the mountains of everyday life.

Flashbacks

The year is 2013 and I am 15 years old. I am living in Riverside, California, training with the USA Synchronized Swimming National Team for my age group. I have just gotten home from the Mediterranean Cup where I placed sixth in the solo category amidst the best in the world. It was the highest the U.S. had placed on that level in a long time. I was on my way. I was now in Southern California for the next two months before heading to Puerto Rico for the Pan-American meet where I would compete in the solo and team events.

The days were long, and the training relentless. I was 15 years old. My friends at home were going on vacations with their families, starting their first jobs and sleeping in. I was in the water every day by 7 a.m., and I would stay there until 5 p.m. I wasn’t allowed to have dressing on my salads. I was weighed every day. I had extra training scheduled for my solo and I did everything with a 5-pound weight belt around my waist. But I had a dream.

I remember one particularly draining day: 110 degrees outside, two hours into my first practice. I was floating on my back, eyes closed, in the middle of the pool, in between swim-throughs (swim-throughs are where you run through the entire routine — very hard, very exhausting, anxiety-filled horrible things, trust me). I was praying that my coach would have pity on me before turning the music on for me to do it all over again. Forty-five seconds later, I was pushing my numb arms and legs through hell for the 50th time that day. Two and a half minutes later I’m floating on my back again, but this time I can’t breathe. Part of it was that I had just held my breath for the last 2 1/2 minutes, but part of it was also the pain. Tears filled my eyes and I quickly sat up to ask to use the restroom.

In the water, they can’t see you cry. You can’t let them see you cry.

I ran to the bathroom where I locked myself in a stall and sank to the floor, hugging my knees. I cried, hard. My sobs shook my entire body, and I screamed to heaven for strength and comfort beyond my capacity to describe. I allowed myself three minutes of weakness before unlocking the stall door, washing the red from my eyes, and running back out and diving into the pool to do it all over again.

On that day in 2013, I felt small, imperfect and unworthy. My mountain to climb was not necessarily the grueling hours of training, but getting up off that bathroom floor, and unlocking that stall door. The battle was mixing my tears with the salt in the water and letting my pain stay beneath my skin.

The present

The year is now 2017. I have gone to hell and back again since that summer day four years previously. But my daily battles remain ever similar. I walk into my room at 9:30 p.m. after a long day, feeling empty and numb. I sit down at my desk and lean my head on some books in front of me. There are moments in my day-to-day life where my body won’t produce enough of the hormones necessary for me to feel joy. Today is one of those days. I let myself sink onto the floor where I lay for a good 60 minutes. I fight an all-too-common war within my heart and mind. Shame, anxiety, imperfection and sadness wrap me in a blanket so dark I can’t see.

It takes all 60 minutes to convince myself to sit up and change into my pajamas. I find the heavenly strength to walk over to my bed, where I soon realize I don’t have any sheets, since I took them off to wash earlier that morning. The thought of having to even put pillowcases on my pillows seems so impossible and unreachable that I sink down to the ground once more. I find myself halfway under my bed, engulfed in the same darkness I had experienced minutes before. I lie there, sobbing and shaking until a dear friend of mine comes to my side to hold me, lift me into bed and put pillowcases on my pillows.

Pillowcases. Pillowcases. That was my mountain. I laid on the floor for 120 minutes because the notion of making my bed sent me into a place so dark and so empty I needed physical help getting up.

But the thing is, I got into bed. And I woke up the next morning with joy seeping through my bones. And that day in the bathroom, I may have cried (a lot), but I kept going.

What I've learned

Sometimes, the battles we fight are heart-wrenching and traumatic: the death of a loved one, a terminal illness, even heartbreak. And sometimes, our battle is simply getting out of bed in the morning. And for me, when getting out of bed is the hardest thing for me to do, it feels very similar to the times when my mountain was more extreme. And the joy that comes? The satisfaction and triumph that rushes under my skin as a result of climbing any mountain in my life, no matter the shape or size? Indescribable.

In the water, they couldn’t see me cry. I believed that my battle of imperfection was not worthy of tears. My fight against my mind was not traumatic enough to require pity from those around me. If I had continued with this thought pattern, then I would probably still be lying on my floor, too far deep to get up. I would have thought that my trial, my mountain, my climb was not hard enough to require the help of others, nor was it anything special.

But God, God can see you cry. God lies on the floor with us, no matter how simple the object of our defeat may be. He lies with us, no matter where we are, with the same tears. Does it matter what our mountain is and how high it may be in the eyes of others? Do you think it really matters that your struggle is standing on your feet in the morning, and what the reason behind that is? So what if your impossible task is exercising, and your neighbor is living life without her husband? God values whatever it is that you struggle with. God cares that you climb. God cares that you help others climb. God cares that you succeed in your climb. God cares enough to see you cry, and he believes in you enough to let you cry. There are a lot of powerful things in this world but nothing quite as powerful as seeing someone scale their mountain with tears in their eyes.

Olivia currently lives in Buena Vista, Virginia where she attends Southern Virginia University. She is studying liberal arts and business, hoping to pursue a career in digital media and public relations. She stays busy juggling school, her blog, and coaching a club synchro team in Charlottesville, VA. Olivia loves the simple things: thunderstorms, movies, dark chocolate, and good conversation, but her deepest joy comes from God and her family back in Gilbert, Arizona where she grew up, and takes every chance she can to go back and visit.