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by Sallie Bartkowiak

December 25, 2017

Michigan Masters swimmer Sallie Bartkowiak took a lengthy trip back to the pool

I readied my goggles and adjusted my cap. My mind was like a freight train. Would I still have “it?” Would my muscles remember?

After a 30-year break from any type of swimming, I needed to jump-start my gym routine because my running days were over. The pool was the obvious answer—I was a swimmer!

I would mark that first swim four years ago “the exploratory voyage.” Keeping my expectations low, my nerves instantly calmed down as the water enveloped my body. I swam a couple freestyle laps and stopped, a bit tired.

I wasn’t surprised. As a seasoned athlete on the bike and track and in the weight room, I knew my endurance would translate differently in the pool. The muscle memory from decades past found its way back into my bloodstream and those endorphins kicked in as I continued with flip turns, backstroke, butterfly. A flood of racing and swim-team memories came back to me during the 300 yards I was able to swim in my first return to the pool. The quietness I found so exhilarating coming off walls was still there. It still felt magical.

That mere 300 yards, which once felt like a mountain to overcome, has turned into 4,000 yards a day, five times a week over the last four years with Michigan Masters. I have become obsessed with swimming. Again.

It’s been a long trip. My father introduced me to water at the age of 4. The love affair started with lessons, and turned into middle school, high school, and club swimming. He was a teacher, basketball coach, and role model to me, and his passing in 1982 when I was just 16 was devastating. I didn’t want to step foot in a pool again.

The pool was a great place to disperse my grief. But that grief soon turned inward, and the coping mechanism I developed was an eating disorder that would last for more than two decades. My dream of swimming in college ended. I had to leave my team at Michigan State my freshman year in 1984 because I was physically incapable of participating.

I was in and out of hospitals wrestling with the eating disorder until 1989 and then, much healthier, I managed to compete in a couple triathlons. But that was the extent of my swimming. There was no passion for a swimming lifestyle until that day I decided to see what the pool looked like at the gym.

Flash forward to 2014—the bulimarexia in remission and I’m living a positive lifestyle. Getting into the pool again that day at my local gym and starting a swim workout regimen inspired me to find out about coaching at our local club, where I’ve been a USA Swimming-certified assistant coach for three years.

It’s the age-group kids who really motivated me to join Masters Swimming. Watching them compete awakened the competitive beast that had been lying dormant in me for more than three decades. I know my swimming endeavors enable me to be a better coach and role model. It shows the kids that they, too, can have a life around water on their terms, and that there are many ways to appreciate swimming.

I tell myself every day that getting back into swimming and competing was the best thing I ever did—both mentally and physically. The time away from the sport has given me a different perspective of how I see myself and treat my body. Coaching connects me to my father and keeps alive in me the values he held so dear: to live life on your own terms with mental grit.


  • Human Interest