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Sink or Swim: Reflection from Natalie Hofer, a Year Later

“It was tough, but I made it work.” – Natalie Hofer

Last year, our team at Penn Innovators in Business spoke with Natalie Hofer, now a junior at Agnes Irwin High School. Swimming has been a part of her life since she was 3 years old, and her resiliency was tested in tough waters since the onset of COVID-19. We asked her to share her reflections on the past year and how she’s been able to fuse her love for the sport with the physical barriers of the pandemic. 

How was your swimming impacted by COVID-19?

“I was at a team called Westtown Aquatic Club, and this team was connected to a school which wouldn’t allow outsiders to come in. I was very hopeful that the team would reopen but unfortunately, it didn’t. Because there was a lack of swim teams in PA, we had to travel all the way to Delaware to look for a team. I eventually found one that had just started opening and accepting new swimmers, but the pool was outside, so I was swimming outside all the way until January. It was really tough but I made a bunch of friends and they helped me get through it. After January, I moved to the Upper Main Line Y which is where I am now.”

What was the transition like back-to-school, and what was a typical day like for you?

“As I go to an all-girls private school, it is pretty tiny and we were able to open back up fall 2020 before most of the other public schools. However, I chose to take classes virtually because my club team was so far away from school since Wilmington, Delaware and Villanova, Pennsylvania are around an hour away. I wasn’t able to make swim practices work because of the timing standpoint. It was only until January that I was able to return when my high school varsity swim team opened.

For my school, we had the same schedule each day but the classes would interchange, so we’d have a class in the morning, a little break for assembly or clubs, two classes after lunch, and then two classes at the end of the day. However, there were a lot more restrictions. We had to be separated by grade, which meant that I was only with other 10th graders in one section of the building, and we were blocked off from everywhere else. We had to wear masks and we lost many things that we took for granted like the library, cafeteria, and gym. 

This was a huge challenge for me and my classmates because we lost connections with other grades, but we were able to make adjustments and set up Zoom times for us and our friends in other classes to chat. It was tough, but we made it work.”

Along with school changing, how did school sports change?

“Luckily, swimming as a sport was very similar to past years, mainly because we were not separated into grades but kept all together. However, this entailed that every week all of the athletes would have to get covid tested during school hours and had to wear masks during practices. Due to being underwater, we were able to take off masks during in-pool practice. 

Something different this year is that in the past, we would sometimes practice with the Haverford School boys team, but we were not allowed to come in contact with them this year. For meets during COVID, we were limited to being paired up with only one school for meets which was Agnes Irwin vs. Baldwin. We were limited to only three meets and our times were compared online with the other schools in our league. 

Also, one of my favorite meets, Easterns, which is a very competitive championship Interscholastic meet held at Franklin & Marshall University, was canceled in 2021 due to COVID. I have looked forward to this meet every year with the hopes of improving my time. The first year I attended was in 2017 as a 7th grader, and I was one of the youngest participants. A year later, in 2018, I made it to C finals in the 100 breaststroke. In 2019, I pushed myself further and made it to B Finals, and last year, I made A finals finishing in 7th place as a 10th grader. I really hope they have Easterns this year because one of my goals is to be on the podium.”

What did a normal summer day look like for you?

“This summer, I was hired on to my first real job as a camp counselor at Concord Country Club. It was 6 weeks long, but I was still swimming at the same time. I would wake up at 4:50 AM to get to swim practice at 6:00 AM until 8:00 AM. Because my swim practice is 30 minutes away from home and work, I had to schedule in a lot of time for my commute. I would then head straight to Concord Country Club, arriving at 8:45 AM. I would go through the camp day watching about 22 kids with myself and another counselor, ending at 3:00 PM with aftercare until 5:00 PM. 

On Tuesdays and Thursdays during summer swim league, I would go straight from work to a swim meet at 5:00 PM, so some days, I would leave my house at 5:30 AM and not get home until 9:00 PM. I would fit in club practice, 8 hour work day and swim meet all in one day! 

My weekends were consumed with swimming, I was attending USA or Y swim meets and did a lot of traveling for big meets like:

  • TYR Spring Cup in Richmond Virginia (May)
  • Long Course Classic in June at Bucknell University (June)
  • Y National Championship in Cary, North Carolina (July)
  • Middle Atlantic LC Senior Champs in Carlisle, PA (July)

Sometimes it was a hard balance to fit everything in. For example, this past Saturday my summer league team was having a Family Fun night at the club and I wanted to go so much but it was the same weekend as Senior Champ in Carlisle. My prime event 200 Breast was on Saturday and if I made finals, it meant I couldn’t get back home in time to attend. But I made it work! I made finals, finishing in 9th place and dropping -3.84 seconds for a personal best time of 2:45.18!  I then ran to the car for a 2 ½ hour drive home and got to the club at the very end of Family Fun night!  A couple of my best friends on the team waited late just to be there when I got there.”

How have you engaged with swimming in your personal life?

“I have found ways to use my love of swimming as a way to help others. Back in May, at the end of the school year, I got my lifeguard and CPR certifications. Now that the summer camp has ended, I am a lifeguard at my pool. During the summer swim league, I would volunteer anytime I had to help with the lineup of our younger team swimmers who were new to the swim team.  

Most recently, I was selected to attend the USA Swimming Regional Diversity Select Performance Camp to be a leader and represent my community in the swim world.  Usually, we travel to a camp with other top swimmers from around the country but due to COVID it was only virtual this year.

Moving forward, I want to continue to find ways to give back to the sport of swimming.”

Any other highlights this summer?

“In my first meet for the Concord Country Club Swim Team, I broke the 15-and-over age group pool record from 1997 in the 50 Breaststroke! Then at the end of season championship prelims, I broke the 2011 Chester County Country Club League record with a time of 34.38. I love summer swimming so much, so much so that for the 6th year in a row, I got a “Superstar Award” for perfect attendance!”

For a video version of this interview, you can find it on our YouTube page, linked below.

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