December 11, 2017

A new kind of Champion

Since this month I am focusing on the youth, I thought it would be a good time to share this post written by a young woman who has a very unique journey. One of championships and trophies. But in the road that got her where she is now, she has learned to be a different kind of champion. One who has learned to stand. 

A new kind of Champion 
by Olivia Ekberg

I’m lying in the back of an ambulance racing towards the hospital in Walnut Creek, California. The EMT above me is trying to stabilize my seizing body enough to get an IV in my arm, and the oxygen blowing into my nose makes me feel like I’m suffocating. I feel tears roll down my cheeks. I try not to cry. I get kicked out of the pool if I cry. As the cold tears gather by all the tubes and wires attached to me, I feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I’m seventeen years old, living alone, two states away from my family, training for the Olympic Games. It is in this moment—with the setting November sky outside the ambulance window—speeding down the highway, that I know. If I continue the way I’m going, I will die in the pool one way or another.

I am a synchronized swimmer on the USA Senior National Team. I made this team when I was sixteen years old and found myself on the 2015 World Championship Stage just a few months later. I’m pretty good at what I do. At eight years old I made my debut at the National Championship, and I represented the U.S. internationally for the first time at twelve. The 2016 Olympic Qualifier is 5 months away. Two years separate me from the next youngest on the team, deeming me the “future” of USA Synchro. I have a point to prove. I have a country to represent. I have people to please, I have family I need to make proud. I have dreams.

I thought I had dreams.

Soon after my trip to the hospital, I booked a one-way flight home to Arizona to run countless tests on my body and be with my mom. I had no idea when I would be back in California, I had no idea what was wrong with my health, and I had no idea what the future held for me in the world of synchronized swimming.

What I did know was that I was miserable. The pursuit of constant perfection every day in the pool, the piercing eyes and vulgar words from my coaches, the disconnect, the inhumanity they represented, and being alone that young—it was killing me. For months I had prayed that God would let me tear my ACL, take me out of the water, save me. I didn’t want to make the choice to step away, that meant weakness. I recoiled at the thought.

I found myself in and out of the hospital in Arizona. My mom constantly holding my hand. My body in constant pain. My mind in constant worry. The worst part wasn’t the results we got, it was the results we didn’t get. All my blood work came back normal. My EKG was perfect. MRI spotless. EEG showed no seizure activity, though I had seizure-like episodes while hooked up to the wires. I was shaking every 30 minutes, up to twelve times a day, yet I was deemed completely healthy. There was no end in sight, no one believed my pain was real.

The ER Attending was the first to diagnose me with “conversion disorder”: a psychological disorder where past emotional trauma and severe stress will manifest itself in physical, neurological symptoms. In my case, seizure-like activity.

The shaking always starts in my right arm and as soon as I lie down, the convulsions take over my entire body and I shake uncontrollably, on average, for about twenty minutes, hitting the ground with the weight of my body and tears streaming down my face. I am fully conscious. I feel absolutely everything.

Because my mind was the cause of so much physical distress, I needed to fix my thinking if I ever wanted my body to stop shaking. That meant walking away from the sport that had shaped my personality, my growth, my faith, my work ethic, my every decision. It meant stepping away from all that I was, all that I hoped to be, and all the worth I thought I possessed. Walking away meant imperfection, in it’s deepest sense. That shook me to the very core.

What would people think of me? How would they view my failure? I was the girl who almost went to the Olympic Games. The girl who just wasn’t strong enough to handle the pressure. The girl who everyone believed made up her pain to get away from it all.

All those questions were ones I vomited onto my counselor the second I sat in our first session. I then proceeded to tell him that there was nothing wrong with me, I was completely fine! Despite what he thought, I could be perfect. I could reach the unattainable. Because I have a work ethic that no one else has. I was on the Olympic Team, for goodness sakes! I know what perfection is, what it looks like, so why can’t I just be perfect? Why can’t I just not ever make any mistakes? Isn’t it that simple? It’s a perfectly reasonable goal, a perfectly attainable goal. The problem, I told him, was with my weakness, my inadequacy, not my pursuit of perfection.

He laughed.

I cried.

For months we toggled with this idea that I could be perfect. I was addicted to the idea that I could reach a point in my life where I would never disappoint anyone, I would never hurt anyone, everyone would like me, and I would never be judged for my mistakes.

This idea came from a little girl who jumped into a perfectionistic sport. A teenager thrust directly into the middle of her parent’s horrific divorce. Watching her angel mother on her knees with rolling tears. Feeling her forever family shatter, leaving everyone empty and heartbroken, clinging to faith that was weakening. Leaving home to train for the Olympic Games to escape it all. Emotional abuse, rejection, disappointment, failure, and utter loneliness followed in a dark shadow. It was anything but an escape.

My spirit was old and tired, trying to fit inside the body of an emotionally depleted seventeen year old.

It took a long time to see that little girl inside me again.

One day my counselor had me look into the mirror he had in his office. He told me to look myself in the eyes. I stood there and looked at myself for a long time, until silent tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stand.

In my eyes, I saw all that I was running away from. I was drowning in those deep pools of brown. But I finally understood.

Behind all the medals, all the National Anthems, all the victory and all the success was a girl that had shame, emptiness, and deep insecurity hiding beneath the heart that drove her to be a champion.  Behind the mask of perfect capability was just a girl who feared imperfection more than anything else in the world. It was hard, admitting that I wasn’t okay. It was even harder to be okay with not being okay.

I spent the next year and a half learning to think again. Starting from square one and learning how to retrain my thought processes and thinking patterns. Learning who God was again, contemplating what I really believed about the nature of God. Learning who I was, where my worth lied, where I was going, and the crucial difference between progress and perfection. It was a constant marathon in my mind day after day. Tears continuously poured down my cheeks. I took every situation that drove me back to the depths of hellish perfectionism and pulled them apart and analyzed every minute, every feeling, every decision, and every improvement. I had to understand the relationship between what my mind was telling me and what my body was feeling, because that natural companionship was one that was robbed from me the second I made the decision to pursue perfection over life.

Like a baby learning to walk, I had to learn to feel. I had to learn to think. I had to learn to live.

The process was far from perfect. Like any addiction, I had relapse and withdrawal. But ultimately, I had to learn to simplify. I had to understand the power behind saying “no,” behind recognizing my limitations, admitting my limitations, and learning that limitations are anything but weaknesses. The more I started saying “no” to the little things in my life, (like working extra hours, making a treat for the next church function, babysitting a neighbors daughter), I was actually saying yes to myself, my family, and my God. Though I disappointed many people in the process of learning to say “yes” to myself, I found that my “no’s” were never a “no” to my love for them, but just me understanding how much I could really give. Giving myself a resounding “yes” mended my soul, brought God back into my life, and taught me how much I am valued. I rediscovered love. I felt love: real, lasting, unconditional love for the first time. I will never go back.

But what do you do when your life is erupting in flames around you? What do you do when you are drowning when you spent your entire life learning to swim? What do you do when you feel your God has abandoned you? Where do you start?

You just live. Day by day, second by second, one moment to the next. You start by waking up every morning, by getting out of bed. You live raw and unfiltered. When you find yourself at the corner of darkness and light, understand that path you desire is illuminated by the other. It is often necessary to walk in darkness before you naturally veer where we all belong—in the light. A journey I have trekked through many times, and found impossible to do without God. Do not rob yourself of the present. Feel the now, do not run from grief. Move forward, especially when it is dark. Perfect has nothing on your soul.

For those of you who are in the thick of drowning in perfectionism, athletic disappointments, breaking families or lost souls, you are not alone. I wish I could reach out and lay with you in your hell. But I promise that God lays on the floor with you, with the same tears. He won’t leave.

To read more about Olivia her blog is: and you can find her on Instagram: _oliviaekberg (


funmom said...

That was beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. xoxo

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