What Swimming Has Meant to Me

Kerry Giacobbe is a USA Swim Coach and Stroke Instructor living in Northeast Philadelphia. She has 15 years of marketing experience and currently makes a living as a freelance graphic designer and writer through her business, Cagey Creative.  She lives with her husband Matt who is a 28-year military veteran, their two children and Sarge (a 9-year old German Shepherd), all of which would not be possible without their very loyal nanny. Stay tuned for more from Kerry as she gets her head around family life, swimming, her career, horses and whatever else she feels compelled to write about.

Kerry Giacobbe

I started swimming when I was 11 years old. Back then, and even more by today’s standards, that’s really pretty late. I babysat for a family that lived behind us with four age group swimmers. They belonged to a neighborhood summer swim club and invited me to join there with them. I was immediately taken in by the pool and the swim team. I decided I wanted in.

It was really hard starting as late as I did. You can imagine, just learning the competitive strokes at 11, I was really behind the ball. I can’t say it came easy to me or that I worked the hardest in the pool. I admired the fast lane kids like I did the popular kids in school. I just couldn’t understand how to get there.

Two summers into swimming for the local club, I had heard about this thing called USA Swimming. It seemed to be the place all the good kids were going to swim. In my bullish strong-headed fashion I charged ahead and convinced my parents to sign me up. They were going to need to drive me to swim practice 5 days a week for several hours at a time in a town 10 miles away. Needless to say they weren’t thrilled with the idea, but I prevailed and joined the USA Swim Club.

The team I joined wasn’t the best in our area, but they still produced some good A-Level swimmers. In hindsight I think the coaching lacked a lot in terms of connection with the kids and stroke mechanics, but we all learned a lot about training and endurance. We did what seemed like an endless amount of really long freestyle swims…something I hated but learned was really good for my mental health. You get to think in a different way during a long freestyle set. Something about the rhythmic nature of freestyle is calming and meditative.

Swimming got me through high school. I don’t want to think about what my life would have been like without it. It’s how I defined myself and in so many ways it increased my self-esteem, my body image, helped me make friends and brought so many benefits into my life.

In high school, I was able to swim for both the USA team as well as our high school team, the Tigers. Being a Lady Tiger was a lot of fun. I didn’t have to go to all the practices because I swam USA but I dominated at the meets, along with a handful of other USA swimmers. In my senior year we went on to win our division championships and I was part of the winning relay that cinched the title. As you can imagine this was a really big moment for me. I had come so far since the summer swim club when I struggled to keep up.

Before entering my senior year of high school, a boy I liked asked me to help teach him how to swim better and faster so he could pass an ocean lifeguard test on the summer island where his parents had a second home. He even invited me down to stay at his house on the Island the weekend he took the test. He thought if I swam with him, it would help improve his time.

We worked for weeks on his flip turns and freestyle stroke until the big test day. It was probably mid-may and pretty cold on the 18-mile barrier Island where the swim test took place. The outdoor pool wasn’t a regulation size and the water couldn’t have been above 65 degrees. The test was fast-past. The returning guards, decked out in their enviable lifeguard sweats and jackets, watched you strip down to your bathing suit and wait to be called into the freezing water. Once in, the whistle blew and you had to do a timed 200-freestyle. New lifeguard recruits were chosen as the ones with the fastest times and filled however many open spots they had.

I was one of the top finishers. It was a great moment. All of the older guards came up to me and invited me to the ocean lifeguard training which started the following week. They wanted me to compete as a swimmer in the lifeguard races (what I came to find-out were pretty competitive events). My wanna-be boyfriend also made the cut, thanks in large part to my coaching. It was definitely a day to celebrate.

When I got home from the weekend, I couldn’t tell my parents exactly what had happened but I had decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss-out on. Despite the fact that I had no place to stay on the Island if I was officially selected, I secretly cut school (something I had never done before) and drove down to the Island unbeknownst to my parents. I attended 3 out of the 5 ocean lifeguard training course days. Having grown up swimming in the ocean every summer during our two week vacation, and already certified as a red cross lifeguard, I passed the ocean swimming and skill tests without a problem. They issued me my very own enviable lifeguard gear and told me what beach to report to on June 20th.

I had finally made it. In my mind, I was now one of the cool kids and swimming was the vehicle that got me there. I managed to convince my parents (only a minor issue) to help me find some kind of housing situation so I could work the entire summer on the Island. Despite some hard learned life lessons, that summer and the 5 that followed while in college, were the best of my life. It was an unforgettable experience.

As an ocean lifeguard I competed and medaled in many ocean swimming and boat lifeguard races. I fought through fear of the water, freezing temperatures, wet-suits, soft sand runs, freaky sea life and so much more. I was in the best shape of my life.

I became scuba certified, a water-safety instructor, lifeguard instructor, first-aid and cpr instructor and ran the learn-to-swim program at the local fitness center. And then I stopped. Despite the wonderful time I had swimming and all the good feelings I got from it, I decided that a strong female was not what the guys I hung around with wanted to date. I was great friend material, just not girlfriend material. So my final summer I gave it all up to become a beach badge checker. Looking back, I have a lot of regrets about this but at the time I just wanted to be pretty and girly and wear a bikini and be taken seriously as attractive and dateable.

From that point, life moved forward in a different direction and I didn’t look back to my days in the water or seem to miss it all that much. By the time my oldest daughter was turning 3, I got my head around the fact that she needed to learn to swim. I found the best USA swimming facility around and brought her there for lessons. I knew I wanted her to be a swimmer. Walking into that pool on the day of her first lesson brought it all back to me. The smell, once such a part of my skin, hair and gear flooded me with good sensations and memories. Peace and calm seemed to be restored in my life, if only for the length of her lesson.

I pushed my daughter hard as a small child into the sport. She was strong and a naturally good swimmer and I wanted her to have all the advantages of an early start that I fought so tenaciously during my years of swimming to make up for. She burnt out about 4 years into competitive swimming, just around her 9th birthday. We took a break together this time. I needed to figure out what this sport was all about in our lives and what part it would play in our future.

I realized that my need to push swimming in my daughter’s life was about what I had left in the pool and that it wasn’t fair to her. I decided to start teaching again and got a part-time job as a swim instructor at our local Y where I have helped a lot of kids learn to swim. Having so much experience in the water, it wasn’t hard to stand out from the 18-22 year old lifeguards I was teaching with. I got re-certified as a water safety instructor and was steadily requested for private lessons. Swimming began to play a positive role in my life again.

Our local Y had a sort-of team they called a swim-clinic and what I came to find out, a really great coach. He was an A-level age-group swimmer, several time Junior Olympian, Penn State collegiate swimmer and an all around great guy. In many ways, he has had the opposite experience of me in swimming…being the cool kid in the fast lane, winning a lot and banking on the sport to make a living.

We’ve been working together for less than two years now and have built quite a strong USA Team together. I handle the beginner group, stroke mechanics and play the sensitive role and he is all of the push, hard training, discipline and stability the kids need in strong role-model. We make a great team. I hope I can continue to bring my undeniable passion for swimming to others along with my determination to overcome whatever challenges lie on the road ahead.

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