Staying in the Water
Aquatic Life After College
Swimmers who choose to swim in college, mostly at the NCAA level, will spend hours training in the pool, gym and weight room. Often, training is akin to a part-time job for student athletes. It’s understandable that many hang up their goggles after their last collegiate race and walk away from the pool forever.
Swimmers who burn out on their sport in college probably don’t often think much of the idea of becoming Masters swimmers in the 18–24 age group. But not all ex-collegiate swimmers avoid the pool. Some have discovered that swimming on their own terms allows them to stay connected to the water and to themselves.
Anna Tommerdahl, 25, did not stop swimming after her last college meet, but she did stop competing. “I’m completely burned out of competing,” she says about her four years at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “Maybe at some point [I’ll compete]. I swim now because I love it so much … it wasn’t something I was ready to give up on when I finished college.”
Tommerdahl swims with the Southern Marlins Racing Team in Charleston, S.C. Waking up at 5 a.m. five mornings a week gets a little rough sometimes, but she says she is always glad she loves being done with her workout for the day before many of many friends are even up. University of Florida alumnus, NCAA champion and 2008 Olympian, Caroline Stilwell Burckle, 26, also swims for that feeling of accomplishment after a workout that.
“I know I will feel good afterwards,” Burckle says. “There is nothing like the way swimming makes you feel … It’s so fun!” Burckle earned a bronze Olympic medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay in Beijing, and now swims with Lakeside Masters, a workout group of Swim Kentucky Masters in Louisville.
A strong love for the sport keeps these younger Masters swimmers in the water. Many say the child inside of them that fell in love with the pool so many years ago still lingers even after the years of strenuous work.
“There’s no pressure. There is no set schedule you have to attend, rather it is more on your terms,” Burckle says.
Fellow Gator alumnus Elliot Meena agrees. Meena, 29, swims for Asphalt Green in New York City.
“If I miss a practice I am not afraid of my coach being upset or others out-training me. I know I’ll feel good about myself when I am finished,” he says.
These recent graduates have found that in Masters swimming, there is no pressure to train hard for an upcoming meet, or a mandatory practice that is being timed by a coach. Any pressure is self-imposed.
“There’s no practice attendance requirement and no pressure to make tough intervals. Swimming Masters is much different than swimming in college,” Tommerdahl says. “I was a distance swimmer. That meant 8,000 to 12,000 yards a day or more, and now I think that a 4,000-yard practice is long.”
Tommerdahl averages eight to 10 hours per week in the pool, which puts her at the higher end of Masters attendance.
“While we had a pretty fun atmosphere in college, practice was still pretty serious,” she says. “With our Masters team, we’re there to get a workout, but at the same time, hardly anyone takes anything very seriously.” These athletes are likely to avoid some of the problems that can accompany a long hiatus from swimming: An athletic physique that disappears behind a beer belly or the extra weight added on by a pregnancy. Many older athletes have knees or backs that can’t take the constant pounding of running or other land-based sports.
Some injuries don’t even wait until middle age to hurt a swimmer’s body. At just 25, Tommerdahl finds freedom in the pool.
“I have a back injury and pretty much every other sport or activity I’ve tried is painful, but swimming helps me,” she says. “Also, being a grad student keeps me busy and stressed, and swimming is how I get away from that and let my brain relax.”
Many agree there is something Zen-like about swimming some easy laps, focusing on nothing and letting muscle memory take over.
It takes a lot of self-motivation to swim on a regular basis, Meena admits. “Sometimes, if you are unable to make a few workouts it is extremely difficult to motivate [yourself] to get back into the pool.” Tommerdahl agrees, adding, “I’m no longer swimming for my team or my coach, but solely for myself.”