A US national swimming champion at the age of just 15, Karlyn Pipes spiralled swiftly into alcohol addiction before turning her life around. After writing a book, The Do Over, about her long battle, she is back in the water, claiming huge success and coming to Bahrain to train Iron Man swimmers this month. She shared her story with Liz O’Reilly.
At what age did you discover swimming and, more importantly, your talent for the sport?
I had my first swimming lesson at age four and right away I knew I had found my happy place. I loved to perform and my instructors were so encouraging and supportive. I didn’t get much attention at home with an alcoholic father, a mom in survival mode and five kids under the age of seven. But in the pool, that was another story. I swam my first race at age six and by age eight I was the high point scorer for my team. I loved being in the water and I loved racing.
How did you go from the discipline of training into the bar scene?
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, how I went from a junior national champion at age 15, with Olympic aspirations, to an alcohol abuser almost overnight, but that’s what happened. I think it was the pressure. From age five until age 12, participating in a sport of swimming is a lot of fun with swim meets, hanging out with friends and the opportunity to travel. After the age of 12, the stakes get higher. Now you are training twice a day, losing sleep, the training gets a lot harder and the pressure to perform and swim fast is the goal instead of fitness and friendship. It’s a heavy load for a kid to handle.
When I experienced my first alcoholic buzz, it was like somebody let the pressure out of a tyre and this amazing feeling of ahhhhhhhh washed over me. I knew right then I wanted to feel like that more often. After all, why work so hard in the pool when such a good feeling could come in a bottle?
How long were you in that spiral?
I started drinking at age 15 and got sober at age 31, but I would say that my worst years were from age 26 to 31. At age 25 I set my very first FINA Masters world record, but couldn’t handle the success so I drank even more. Drinking helps you to forget that you’re a total screw-up and that you’ve wasted your talent and a lot of opportunities. At least it helps you forget for a little while.
You also mention a near-death journey. What was the low-point that convinced you to take action?
At the end of my drinking career, I was consuming a litre of vodka a day and, not to sound dramatic, I was waiting for the end! My mom intervened and the next you know I was on my way to a 10-day rehab. Her timing was amazing as, if I had not gotten help before the weekend, I probably would’ve just passed out and never woken back up!
How did you find the strength to pull yourself out of the other side?
I found hope! Over the years I had given up hope. After rehab, I had reclaimed a small measure of it and it seemed that the entire world opened up before me. It was really
You’ve since won numerous awards, broken records and been internationally recognised. Did you set out from a point of view that you knew you could still achieve great things or were you simply hoping to get back to health?
Oh my, I was just happy for this second chance! This disease kills a lot of people and I was very grateful not to be one of them. I was very unhealthy from years of not taking care of my body, so getting back to health was a priority. I started from very humble beginnings with lots of baby steps and a desire to fully embrace this “DO-OVER”. I had to learn how to live a sober life one stroke at a time and to change just about everything, but I was up for the challenge.
Did you ever find age a barrier to achievement?
Never! It was like I was reborn with an opportunity to create an amazing life. Of course, I didn’t believe this in the beginning. I was just grateful to be alive and that was enough. But over time, as things evolved, I started seeing the wonder and awe of all the possibilities that lay before me. I am truly blessed.
You’ve established numerous records. Which is the swimming achievement you’re most proud of?
After setting over 220 Masters world records over the span of the past 24 years, my answer might surprise you. Last January, after taking about three years off from serious competition, I went to a swim meet in Holland. I trained for it, but I had no expectations other than just to enjoy the water and to do my best. In my first event, the 100-metre backstroke, I set a new world record with a surprisingly fast time. For the first time in many years, I truly celebrated the joy of that personal victory. Yep, I felt like a kid again and it was magical!
Do you still swim competitively?
Yes! I have found my passion for racing again, but I’m trying to keep it in check. I now know that my self-worth is not based on my performance. I am a good person whether I swim fast or not! That said, I had a great year setting 10 new world records for the 55-59 age groups and I had a lot of fun doing it.
No pressure to perform — just swim and do your best.
Your 2015 book The Do Over tells the story of your incredible journey. How has it been received?
The book has done really well and I will be bringing autographed copies with me to Bahrain. Judging from the amount of emails I have received, I know that my story has touched many lives. That makes this whole difficult process so worthwhile. I have found that there is a lot of pain in this world and I hope that by sharing my story so openly and honestly that others might give themselves permission to seek their own self-discovery. You are only as sick as your ‘secrets’. Now that my secrets are out I feel quite well!
What made you decide to publish such a candid look at your history and was it painful to write?
It was both liberating and painful at the same time. When you put pen to paper to write your story, you learn so much about yourself. However, it’s a difficult process that takes a lot of emotional and physical work, but in the end it’s totally worth it. I am a different person now because of writing The Do Over.
Today you are both a coach and a motivational speaker. Your pure ability might have set you on this path but do you believe your past is also helpful in motivating others to follow your example?
I speak from the heart and my audiences really connect with that. There is a lot of darkness in this world. I know, I was there. However, the only way to illuminate darkness is to shed light. We all have fears and hurt and regrets and things that we wish we could do differently. I hope that by sharing my real and raw story, that others can see how liberating it is to let go of all that stuff that’s holding us back. When people near the end of their lives, they tend to be more reflective and let go of the past. My goal is to help people find this enlightenment at an earlier age so they still have plenty of life left to live. I’d like to help people learn how to be just a little bit happier!
You’re coming to Bahrain to coach would-be competitive swimmers. What would be your message for those setting out on this journey?
I’m so excited to be returning to Bahrain for the third year in a row! Shaikha Nayla sponsors my trip and I am very grateful. I love teaching and find it’s my true calling. I work with all ages and abilities and a variety of groups and many of them are non-competitive. They just want to learn how to swim better! As for my coaching philosophy, I like to keep it simple, using easy to understand terms and examples found in any aquatic environment. It’s not rocket science! Don’t hold your breath and paddle your body like a surfboard instead of rolling it like a log. See? Keep it simple!
As for a message: Swimming is like life — you do it one stroke at a time and have a lifetime to get it right.