Swimming with no strings attached

As a teenager, I was a late bloomer. I was thin and flat-chested, but I did have muscle, and that came from swimming. I have been a competitive swimmer my entire life.

As an athlete, I practiced 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day, so this level of exercise coupled with the genetics I got from my mom meant I hit puberty a lot later than most of my friends. 

I was almost jealous each month as my friends talked and swapped stories of tampons, cramps, and PMS in the swim locker room. If only I could go back and tell my teenage self, “Don’t be in such a hurry!” 

As a female athlete, periods are not one of life’s great joys. In fact, ask any woman and she has that “first time” story – the first time she tried to use a pad or tampon. I’m willing to bet this wasn’t an easy or pleasant experience. My own experience had a certain sense of urgency attached to it – if you don’t figure out the tampon, you don’t swim. 

I started swimming at the age of six and continued my competitive career all through high school and college. As an adult, I’m still in the pool – I swim 3-5 times a week and compete occasionally as a US Masters swimmer. If I remember correctly, my first period was around age 14-15, so that’s nearly 20 years I had to subject my body to the only product out there – the tampon. 

These days, in addition to being an adult swimmer, I also coach the sport and have two young swimmers of my own – both girls – one pre-teen. Her friends are slowly all starting to get their periods, and the stories I hear about their “first time” from other swim moms are nearly identical to my own: lock yourself in a bathroom for several hours with a box of tampons and hope for the best. 

Not only do most swimmers have that “do or die” moment mere hours before practice, swimmers also face other challenges. Imagine being in a championship meet, standing on the starting block ready to race, and worrying or actually feeling your tampon string hanging out the side of your racing suit. 

You see, for swimmers, periods are different. There is nothing but a thin strip of fabric in between your period and the pool. If you happen to be unfortunate enough to get your period in the middle of practice, there is no hiding.

You run as fast as you can to the bathroom hoping the blood doesn’t run too far down your leg. There is no sweatshirt you can tie around your waist until you find a bathroom. There are no shorts to delay the disaster if your pad leaks. In fact, there’s no option of a pad at all. Just you, a (wet) uncomfortable string, a bathing suit, and a pool. 

This is the current standard in my sport, and frankly it’s unacceptable. That’s why two years ago when I heard about Flex® menstrual disc – I was intrigued. 

For years I have had a light period, so changing a tampon every 4 hours was painful. It’s also uncomfortable to walk around with a wet string after swimming, so even if it wasn’t time for a change, I’d have to anyway (even more painful).

So when I saw an ad for a menstrual disc by a company called Flex that boasted a product that stayed in place, was unnoticeable once placed, lead to less cramping, did not leak, and could be worn for up to 12 hours with no links to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), I thought it was worth a try (and also maybe a unicorn).

The disc looked big and slightly intimidating at first glance, but once I figured out how to place it (after some trial and error) I really could not feel it. Once in, it really didn’t move. It really didn’t leak. It really caused less cramping. I am not exaggerating when I say that this product was life-changing for me. I haven’t used a tampon ever since. 

More importantly, I didn’t have to worry about a tampon while swimming anymore, and I wanted all the young “me’s” and their parents and coaches out there to know about Flex too. 

It may be hard to imagine the impact this product can have on a swimmer’s life, but let me paint a picture: 

As a teenager and an athlete, my typical day started at 5 am when I woke up for morning practice, and most nights didn’t end until 9 or 9:30 pm when I got home from my evening swim practice. That’s about a 14 hour day, which meant anywhere from 4-6 tampon changes. 

If I had Flex Disc™ as a teenager, I could have put one disc in when I woke up and changed it just one time all day. Game changer.

I was also very uncomfortable with my own body as a teenager. The thought of using any kind of tampon or product without an applicator that I’d have to place myself would have completely freaked me out. I want to change this narrative for my daughters and for other young girls that may struggle with their self worth or body image. 

Swimming is the most naked sport out there! Young girls already have to learn how to feel comfortable and confident walking around in front of friends in a bathing suit, they don’t need the added hassle of period drama. It’s okay to get to know your own body. It’s okay to have your period, and it’s okay to expect more for yourself and your body than a painful, clumsy or dangerous menstrual product.  

As a blogger, I focus on topics related to swimmers, swim parents, and swim coaches. I try to write about topics that I directly relate to as a woman that fits into all three of those groups. “Periods on the pool deck” is an important conversation for everyone in the swimming world, but a topic that nobody talks about. Flex made such a difference in my life that I wanted to break this taboo and share my new and improved experience with the sport I have loved for nearly 30 years. 

So I’m here to spread the word – to moms and dads, coaches, swimmers, and all athletes in or out of the water. Thanks to Flex, swimming (and life is general) is a little more drama free.

Rachel Jenkins is a lifelong competitive swimmer, swim mom, and swim coach. She is a project manager by day but runs the blog “The Lane Line” as a side passion where she posts workouts and inspiration for swimmers of all ages.

This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician. 

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