Gold medalist Livingstone advocates self-compassion, acceptance

Samantha Arsenault Livingstone delivered a presentation to students in Griffin 3 last Thursday. Nicole Chen/Staff Photographer.

Samantha Arsenault Livingstone has persevered through countless challenges. A top swimmer, she earned a gold medal in the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. A mother of four, she has confronted her perfectionism, quelled her inner critic and overcome an eating disorder. Now based in Williamstown, she travels around the country to tell others that they, too, can “do hard things” and learn to accept themselves.

Last Thursday, Livingstone delivered a presentation entitled, “Why Winning Gold Wasn’t Enough,” in Griffin 3.

She began by describing her childhood dream to be an Olympian. At age 5, she was planning to be a competitive gymnast, but realized that she was too tall. However, she was determined to make it to the biggest stage.

“The dream to be an Olympian and to be the best in the world remained,” she said. “I had an inner burning desire to know what it was like atop the podium.”

When she was 9 years old, Livingstone began swimming competitively. After one season, she was the top New England swimmer in her age group. She continued to improve rapidly and qualified for the Olympic trials by age 15.

Despite her success, Livingstone confessed that she struggled throughout those early years of competition. When she was 13, she said that she felt exposed and unworthy when racing at Junior Nationals and worried about wasting her parents’ money. “The locker room became a place of isolation where whispers in my head became increasingly loud,” she said.

The whispers turned to screams when Livingstone changed coaches at 14, and practices frequently became shouting matches. Her new coaches commented on her chest size because she was a late bloomer and threw equipment at swimmers. She yelled at the coaches and was routinely kicked out of practice. “I wondered to myself, ‘How many people would even come to your funeral?’” she said.

Fortunately, her mother quickly intervened and asked if she wanted to switch programs. Relieved, Livingstone began swimming for a team that practiced 64 miles from her house; her father dutifully drove both ways. “The sport became fun again,” she said. “That flame inside me rekindled.”

She learned several important lessons that year. “Surround yourself with people who lift you higher,” she told the audience. Her parents and three siblings made sacrifices to support her, and she became a better swimmer and happier teenager because of them. She also encouraged student-athletes to avoid falling prey to perfectionism.

Indeed, at her first Olympic trials, Livingstone realized that even Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson, her idol, was not perfect. She initially chased Thompson and asked for her autograph, but Livingstone’s coach reminded her that she had to race against her hero. “Superhero does not mean superhuman,” Livingstone said. “No one is really superhuman.”

Several years later, on the World Cup circuit, Thompson again inspired Livingstone and helped her confront her perfectionism. The two were swimming in Imperia, Italy, and Thompson, who held the world record in the 100 butterfly at the time, had a bad race but remained cheerful afterward. “I was obsessing about the things I couldn’t control, but that was a major shift for me,” Livingstone said.

While swimming in Sydney on that same tour, Livingstone and fellow Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin made a pact that they would return to Australia for the 2000 Olympics, so when she went home, Livingstone dedicated herself to training. “There are so many more lows in training seven hours a day than there were highs, but that’s all part of it,” she said. The hard work paid off in the preliminary and semifinal rounds of the Olympic Trials. “I was the fastest American,” she recalled. “It scared me that I went that fast. It was easy, and I was so ahead of the field.”

However, she came in third in the finals. She could not accept an imperfection – asthma. She refused to admit weakness and take her inhaler before the race, so she collapsed at the 175-meter mark. Her third-place finish meant she made the Olympic relay team but did not qualify for the individual competition. “It was the most devastating moment in my swimming career at that point,” she said. “I felt like a failure. I couldn’t even look at the board with the names of the Olympians and cried on the airplane. But I never told that story to anyone because people want the Hallmark version.”

Livingstone felt pressure to present a happy façade after winning gold with her relay team. She showed the audience a photograph, which was published in Sports Illustrated, of her and her teammates yelling as the race concluded. She mentioned that her swim cap did not feature her name because she forgot her own, and had to wear a teammate’s and color over the name.

“It made me feel like I didn’t belong,” she said. “I led off and touched in sixth place, which my coach asked me to do. It was the fastest American time besides my morning swim, but it wasn’t good enough. I was screaming in the photo because I felt like I had let my teammates down.”

On the podium, Livingstone continued to doubt herself. “I felt vastness and openness because we were the best in the world, but it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I was just a relay girl.” Her inner critic also shouted at her. “I had stepped on the scale the night before and cried all night because I felt like I wasn’t worthy enough or lean enough,” she said.

After the Olympics, Livingstone continued her swimming career at the University of Michigan. She struggled with an eating disorder during her early years of college after a coach told her that she had to gain strength without putting on weight. At first, she rejected help, but after working with life coach Greg Harden, who has also assisted Tom Brady, she realized that “asking for help is a sign of courage and strength.”

Livingstone stopped using food as a weapon after her freshman year and transferred to the University of Georgia, where she found a true sense of belonging and won an NCAA title as a senior captain. “I knew my inner critic was not in charge there,” she said.

After college, Livingstone taught high school biology for several years. When she became a mother, she stopped teaching and now focuses on sharing her true story and the confidence she has developed. “Self-compassion is the key to resilience, and you can do hard things,” she reminded the student-athletes at the conclusion of her presentation.

Katie Brule ’20, a member of the women’s basketball team, said she appreciated Livingstone’s honesty and message. “I’ve never heard someone who achieved at such a high level say they didn’t feel good enough,” Brule said. “That was refreshing to hear. I identified with it, and she talked about self-compassion a lot, which made me want to stop punishing myself as much when I don’t have a good day and stay positive.”

Rob Livingstone, the College’s head strength and conditioning coach, described the importance of his wife’s presentation.

“Samantha’s story resonates with so many on our campus,” he said. “While it will impact so many, there are also many on this campus that are not ready to hear or accept this information and guidance. It takes one’s vulnerability and willingness to get there to really benefit and hear Samantha has to say.

“Students and student-athletes alike should remain proactive and equip themselves with the tools that Samantha spoke about. Samantha’s takeaways are very relevant in the sporting arena, as well as academia and life.”