Reflections from the Other Side

Today’s story is written by Columbia University Swimming Captain, Henning Fog (pronounced foeg, with a long O). Henning came to Columbia when I was a senior, and was the fattest freshman, by far. There were rumors of his frequent (several times a week) trips to Burger King, hearty servings of fries at the dining hall, and passion for the Golden Arches.

In the water, his noticeably buoyant butt seemed to protrude from the water, and his stroke technique looked like he was fighting to keep a flock of crows from nesting on his torso.

He was also the fastest freshman.

A few months after joining the team, Henning had become toned, and Coach Jim Bolster’s stroke work (which involves a broom stick and a lot of pain) seemed to be paying off. He was one of just two freshman to be on the Championships team at EISL championships in 2005.

Outside the pool, Henning was a film student, and had among the highest GPA’s on the team. To describe his personality, I would say Henning was significantly toward the board game end of the spectrum (rather than the stay up all night drinking and chasing coeds end), and I had him pegged him for a pacifist.

After graduating I didn’t hear much from Henning until this January when I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with the Columbia  Swim Team on the Big Island of Hawaii. Henning was all smiles on the pool deck, but sounded somewhat eager to move on from his athletic career. His perspective adds some contrast to the usual viewpoints seen in athlete blogs.

I retired this week at the tender age of 21. After countless (well, ten) years of struggle, emotional turmoil, and weight fluctuation that would make even Jenny Craig blush, it was finally time to embrace an easier approach to life. Unlike my AARP card-holding counterparts, though, I’m not moving to Florida; just out of the pool. You see… I’m done swimming. For real. My career as a competitive swimmer has come to an end, and I couldn’t be happier. For starters, my hair is growing back; never again will I have to question my masculinity as I shave my legs. What else am I thrilled to leave behind?

  • the early mornings
  • the double practices
  • the (often crippling) self-doubt
  • the chlorine stench
  • the split ends

Nevermore, nevermore.image

Civilian life is great. It’s been a weird couple of days, though, outside the pool. On a superficial level this post-championship week is no different than any other year – I stay up later than usual, eat worse than I have all season, and generally treat my body like a rag doll – but mentally… spiritually… it’s a whole new world. In losing what has been such a constant in my life for so long, I find the need to redefine myself. My first inclination is to join a gang (Latin Kings?) and start selling drugs to school-kids, but I’ll sleep on it. Lord knows I’d be an awful drug dealer.

For a long time now, swimming has comprised a major part of my identity. Certainly a major part of my schedule – in season, I’d say I averaged one water-logged day every week – but more than that a major piece of the “who is Henning Fog” puzzle. Not that I’ve accepted this willingly. On more than one occasion I’ve brought out my “student-athlete vs. student who happens to participate in athletics” argument, defending at length my position as merely a well-rounded student and not a stupid jock. It should be noted that no one ever really accused me of the latter. In other instances I’ve tried to downplay my involvement with the sport, hiding it from people as though it were a badge of shame. I once dated a girl who had no idea I swam. To be fair, she wasn’t a very curious person.

The clear light of retirement makes it easier to see that for all my problems with labels (and girls, clearly), there was never anything wrong with the life I chose. Everyone has something they do, anyway. And for everything else I filled my time with – movies, writing, meaningless sex – none of it ever struck as deep a chord as the sport of swimming. I recognize now, without regret or resentment, that yes, I was a swimmer. Am a swimmer?

Like I said, I’m done with the sport. No more meets; no post-collegiate delusions of glory*. Time to get fat. I realized the other day, though, that even at 305 gorgeous pounds… I’ll still be a swimmer. Not in swimmer-shape, but still a swimmer. It’s sort of a part of me now; it’s sort of who I am. The experience is different for everyone, I know, but I think there are some basic plots and patterns we can all agree on: the sense of community, of shared pain; that lovely feeling of superiority to other sports; the speedo. However lame, each of these things has defined (and will continue to define) us as people. Swimming is like a more spiritual version of the Mafia – once you’re in, you’re in. No escape. Shit.

Henning Fog

* I suppose it’s funny that I’m writing this on a blog dedicated to the continuing athletic lifestyle when I’m advocating so ardently against it. I’ll say this: people like Ben should keep going. People with talent. The wannabees and hangers-on need to find a mirror, though – pronto – and reassess their lives. Who are they kidding? But that’s another blog post…

Published by Ben

Ben Collins Professional Triathlete

Join the Conversation


  1. great post Henning…gives me a lot to think about my collegiate swimming experience, why I continued my athletic career and pretty much all of my teammates (most of them more talented swimmers than me) did not…i may have to blog about this later today.

  2. Henning,

    Beautifully written. I think once you’ve frollicked under the showers with 30 other men all in Speedos or sans-Speedos, you’re a swimmer. I often meet swimmers on the other side of their careers as they bring their loafy 260lbs into the ‘Medium’ speed lane at my pool only to lap me every 200 yards with an awe-inspiring stroke and surprisingly economic effort. Once out of the pool, they can’t move with not much more than an Ozzy Osbuourne inspired shuffle. They’re still swimmers, just not much else. Embrace it, get a bike and start running. Swimmers can be triathletes too, just stay out of my age group.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! In the time I haven’t spent grazing in front of the refrigerator these past two weeks I’ve actually done quite a bit of running and biking, two activities I’m really starting to enjoy. Replacing the endless black pool line with changing scenery has certainly made the transition easier, but more than anything I just dig being outdoors.

    I have no doubt I’ll return to the pool sometime soon (I’m a Masters coach, anyway) and remember what physically drew me to the sport in the first place, but for now I’m happy on dry land. 260 pounds? I’ll wait until after graduation…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *