New student Annika McEnroe: ‘Swimming is a safe space for me’

Annika on the platform about the compete at the Olympic trials

First-year UC Berkeley student Annika McEnroe hated swimming when she started as a kid. Now, she swims for Cal and qualified for the Olympic trials. (Photo by cposephoto)

“I was born in Vail, Colorado, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, when I was a baby. I learned to swim when I was 2 because my mom thought water safety was important. So, I learned to float, move my arms, kick and breathe, then later transitioned into competitive swimming at the age of 9.

Annika and her younger sister as kids hug while wearing swim suits and caps

Annika (right) and her younger sister, Kirsti, grew up swimming together. Kirsti will be attending and swimming for Stanford University in fall 2022, so the sisters will be competing against each other next year. (Photo courtesy of Annika McEnroe)

I actually hated swimming when I started. My mom would have to drag me into the car to force me to go to practice. As I got older, I started taking really challenging classes in school, like AP and honors courses, and I would get really stressed out. Swimming became a safe space for me, a place where I could release myself from the outside world. My mom used to tell me that I would go to practice really angry, then I’d come home after and be totally fine. She would always point out, ‘Look? That’s what swimming did. It made you forget all of that.’

Last year was very hard due to COVID. My pool didn’t have a lot of space for all of the groups, so the national group practices were from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. every morning. I had to wake up at 4 a.m. every single morning to drive to practice, then immediately drive to school. This strenuous schedule definitely made me question if I loved swimming enough. But luckily I had afternoons off, so I would take a lot of naps.

When recruiting came along, my parents wanted to make sure I didn’t limit myself to going to a school in the South. They said, ‘We want you to find your place — a place that will make you grow, challenge you, help you form values and opinions and become the strong, independent woman you’re meant to be.’

When I visited Berkeley, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is the place for me.’ It’s so diverse. It’s the number one public university in the world. The swim program is one of the top programs in the NCAA. It’s just so cool to get the opportunity to be challenged socially, academically and athletically.

I primarily swim the mid-distance IM (individual medley), so I do a lot of 200-yard events, such as the 200 breaststroke and the 200 fly. I don’t really know specifically what events the team will place me in, but I’m going to do whatever is best for the team.

portrait of Annika McEnroe wearing a Cal t-shirt

“In college, you’re not only swimming for yourself — you’re swimming for your team,” said McEnroe. (Photo courtesy of Annika McEnroe)

In June, I qualified for the Olympic trials in four events — the 100-meter breast, 200 breast, the 200 IM and the 400 IM. It’s definitely a goal of mine to compete in the Olympics, although I want to prioritize getting a degree in bioengineering and figuring out my life ahead of qualifying for the Olympics. I think being part of such a competitive team will get me towards that goal of securing a place on the Olympic team!

Every day in practice, when it gets really hard, the girls always scream ‘Go Bears! Go Bears! Go Bears!’ and it helps you know you can do it, it helps you feel acknowledged. Sometimes swimming can get really lonely — because you’re in your head thinking about your stroke, watching a black line at the bottom of the pool. The cheering from the coaches and my teammates helps me remember, ‘OK, I can do this. I can get through the last two minutes of this practice.’

As a freshman, you have to step up and show that you’re committed and that you want to swim for the team. In college, you’re not only swimming for yourself — you’re swimming for your team. You score points for your team. You want to win a national championship for your team.

The season hasn’t even officially started yet and it gives me chills thinking about going to the next practice. I’m so excited to be part of the Bear family.”