How I've Continued to Push My Limits Even After My Swimming Career Ended

My days in the pool came to an end following a serious shoulder injury, but I still had the desire to challenge my endurance and a craving for competition.

Rachel Zilinskas at triathalon
Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Zilinskas

I was practically a baby when my parents put me in the water for the first time, and even then, I couldn't get enough of the pool. By the time I was just six years old, I won my first swimming competition.

Flash forward a decade, and I was swimming under the guidance of Dick Shoulberg,a legendary coach at a private school across the state from my hometown in Pennsylvania, on a really competitive team in a very competitive environment. That's when I competed for the U.S. Junior National Team, earning my first spot on the National Team, and eventually decided to swim competitively at the University of Georgia.

Rachel Zilinskas
Cory A. Cole

There, I was pushing off the wall with Olympic gold medalists to my left and right, winning national championships, and becoming an All-American swimmer. But by the end of sophomore year, I had suffered a torn rotator cuff, a massive injury that was difficult to recover from. I continued to swim on the collegiate level for the next two years, but the injury really derailed a lot of the big-dream plans I had for my career, including making it to the Olympics. I feel like I wasn't able to ever fully reach my potential in the sport.

By my fifth and final year of college, I officially retired from my swim career and spent the next year running half- and full-marathons and taking Spin classes, but I had an itch to do more. I missed the feeling of competition.

Rachel Zilinskas running
Courtesy of Rachel Zilinskas

So, I signed up to do a half Ironman with my mom, a lifelong triathlete. The race was on her bucket list, and I wanted to go big from the start. As it turned out, I was really good at it. When I crossed the finish line I was ecstatic — I felt like I gave my best effort on that day, but I also got excited because I felt that I could do more, both in terms of speed and distance. I felt like I could go faster.

Rachel Zilinskas biking
Courtesy of Rachel Zilinskas

A year and a half later, I've already completed a full-Ironman and am growing more and more committed to the sport every day. I always prioritize devoting time to my workouts, even though I'm studying for a doctorate in biostatistics. That means I wake up at 4:30 or 5 every morning and go to bed at 9:30 p.m. to make sure I'm getting enough sleep.

The training is what I really enjoy — seeing improvements in myself day by day and noticing new strength. I love that feeling of being in the middle of a run or a bike workout, breathing hard and feeling the pain but also just pushing through it and overcoming it. That's what it's all about. I'm always looking for ways to test myself. I don't do it to torture myself. I actually just really enjoy it — just seeing how far I can push my limits.

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