The Space Between: COVID and Swimming

Courtesy: Sarah Luibel

When I was 6 months old, my parents put me into swim lessons. I found out now at the age of 28 this is not the norm. Parents are usually cooing small sentences and doing airplane landings of spoonfuls of food into their baby’s mouth at this age. Mine were doing all of those things, while also handing me over to an indoor swim school for fear that I would somehow get into my neighbor’s pool. I was also their only child at the time, my younger sister not having to attend swim lessons until she was a toddler, but I like to think this was my defining moment. The moment that would set me apart from other swimmers.

I have no memory of my first swim lessons. I have no memory of actually ever entering the water for the first time, it was just always there. My earliest memory is one of me playing sharks and minnows in a summer swim league, foggy as your eyes open underwater. My next memory is one of me racing breaststroke, probably 5 years old, doing double kicks so I would win, which I didn’t. I went on to swim most of my childhood life and early twenties, competing at a Division 1 school before medically retiring with a shoulder injury my senior year. I never went to the Olympics. I haven’t swum the English Channel, yet, and as of now, I think my swim lessons at 6 months old filled my head with more ideas than my body was actually ready for.

But here I am, 28 years old, haven’t swum for 6 years, and yet, I still consider myself a swimmer. Now a competitive swimmer is a different story, but in all tenses and meanings of the word, I am a swimmer. These past few years amidst a global pandemic, when everything else was taken away, my body craved to be in the water. Years before, when pools were open and I had easy access to everything available, you couldn’t catch me within site of a morning practice and you definitely couldn’t catch me competing. Even if someone paid me, I wouldn’t go. I had told myself I was taking a break, giving myself a chance to try new things above the surface.

Fast forward to 6 months into lockdown, I was dreaming of swimming in races at night. I would open my closet to finger my suit and goggles, wondering why after all this time. After months of sitting on it, pools were still closed and this sense of longing to be in the water remained, I came to a few conclusions. For me personally, and every individual who has dedicated years of their life to swimming, it has become a part of us. The dripping hair, the skin that still reeks of chlorine later in the day, the sense of calm that comes when you dive into a pool in the summer, sunlight reflecting onto the bottom. All you have to do is follow a black tiled line. In a world of chaos, this is one place that will remain silent. In a world where so much is unknown and changing every day, between two lanes, you are just the little kid who fell in love with being in the water.

As we continue to pivot every day with this virus, I find myself worn out by everything around me. Working in education is a completely different ballgame now that Omicron has blazed across our country. Most days I come home, emotionally drained and wondering how long this feeling will last. I don’t have the answers, and to be honest, I think this is a whole new realm for everyone, but what I do know, is that the craving is returning. The need to be in a silent place, let my body go into autopilot and just meditate with the water. There is a sense of flow I have never been able to replicate, and for that I am grateful. I am forced to return to who I have always been, to unwind myself through the most familiar of habits.

Now I will probably be embarrassingly out of shape. My goggles are tied together from tearing, and I will definitely be breathing my first stroke off the wall, but for a short period of time, I will have a place that can’t be touched by the world around me. A small chunk of open water that for an hour allows me to still be who I was before everything around me changed. I’m just a little girl again in the water. I am home.


Sarah Luibel is a former Division 1 Swimmer for UC Davis. She is currently an Instructional Coach for a school district in San Diego. In her free time you can find her reading, attempting new sports on land, and baking all things desserts for her friends and family. 

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Tommy’s swim daddy
11 months ago

Thanks Sarah (Ms. Luibel!) for expressing what we swimmers feel. Can’t imagine where so many of us would be without the freedom we’ve had whether in a pool or open water!

11 months ago

A lyrical expression of the current Zeitgeist which former swimmers have been experiencing for the past two years!