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The Life Aquatic

Keeping your head above water, in and out of the pool

Staying afloat is one of life’s greatest challenges. Taken literally or metaphorically, I’ve found the solution: swimming.

I learned to swim before I could walk and spent every summer at our neighborhood pool with family and friends, proudly living in my chlorine-decimated swimsuit. When I fixed my sights on making my high school’s prestigious swim team, I committed to year-round training. And when the time came to look for colleges, I searched for an environment where I would be challenged academically, physically, and emotionally. 

Through it all, swimming has taught me not just how to stay afloat, but how to charge forward. 

That’s what I tell my swimmers here: To succeed in or out of the pool, you must be dedicated and relentless. Competitive swimmers battle unforgiving water, the clock, and one another. It can be tedious, too: Many swimmers spend the equivalent of a full day each week staring at the bottom of the pool, working to shave off fractions of seconds. Sometimes that’s all it takes to determine success or failure, elation or despair. 

Swimmers know this and ignore it at their own peril: Every lackadaisical finish to the wall in practice, every breath before a turn that reduces momentum into the wall, every skipped lap can mean the difference between winning and losing. For proof, look no further than the greatest swimmer of all time at the 2008 Olympics. Michael Phelps kept his eight-gold-medal dream alive when he won the 100-meter butterfly by one-hundredth of a second. 

Swimming is a painstaking art that requires patience and faith. As a swimmer, you will spend most of your season swimming more slowly than you did at the end of the year before, anticipating the glorious taper at the end of the season when you have your chance to achieve peak performance. The rest of the year is spent grinding through training meant to build strength, perfect technique, and train the heart, lungs, and muscles to most efficiently process fuel and oxygen. 

This means months of excruciating hard work with an unpredictable payoff. Not everyone is up to the challenge; it takes a special type of discipline to stay motivated. A person like that is unique, if not a bit crazy. A person like that is better positioned to set high goals and achieve great things in the water as well as on land. A person like that is a swimmer, and, I’ve come to realize, a Swattie.

Students attend Swarthmore with the desire to be challenged, to learn to think critically, and to expand their perspectives and abilities. The College’s mandatory swimming test is one piece of this growth that helps students find and improve a strength many didn’t know they had. Through physical education classes, students step away from a desk and challenge their bodies to learn unfamiliar movements. To find the strength and patience to swim, to find comfort amid the chaos of water, is an empowering accomplishment. 

I’ve found that swimming is the best teacher, even if you—unlike my teams and me—don’t spend your winters smelling of chlorine. Whether it’s learning to swim, just enjoying a dip, or training with an adult masters team, there are endless lessons to learn when it’s just you versus the water. 

By stripping down to your purest self, swimming requires a delicate balance of strength and relaxation, of frustration and comfort, of determination and patience, of working against and in harmony with your environment to find the perfect buoyancy. 

Just like Swarthmore. 

Just like life.  


—Karin Colby teaches physical education and is the aquatics director and head coach of Swarthmore’s men’s and women’s swimming teams.