Tommy Cope ISL Lessons Learned

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When I first got the call up to the International Swim League (ISL), I was caught completely by surprise. It was the middle of September, and I had been planning on focusing on school for the semester.

However, when an opportunity arose on the DC Trident roster, I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from the coach, Cyndi Gallagher, and GM, Kaitlin Sandeno five hours before the roster deadline. I immediately said yes!

While I competed on one of the highest stages in our sport alongside Olympic gold medalists and world record holders, I still came away from the experience with lessons that can be applied to any athlete at any level:

Stay Out of Your Own Way

Our first meet was against the London Roar, Team Iron, and the Aqua Centurions. Leading up to the meet, no one really knew what to expect. You could feel the excitement in the air the day before, and people were preparing for the unique ISL format. I was getting ready for my first 100 IM since swimming summer league!

Before getting in to warm up, I looked at the pysch sheet for the day. In my first event, the 200 Breast, I was going to be next to Ian Finnerty, American-Record Holder and NCAA Champ, and Adam Peaty, one of the best breaststrokers in history. “Well,” I thought, “this is going to be interesting!”

I began putting on my suit, and it turned out to be a little smaller than I was used to. Struggling to pull it up, I saw the clock on the wall ever approaching my start time, 30 minutes… 20 minutes… 10 minutes…

Finally, I got my suit into place and ran over to the call room. I was sweating and my heart was pumping, but because I was so focused on getting my suit on, I completely forgot to get nervous for my swim.

I just followed the instructions from the officials in the ready room, got up on the block, and started! Because I wasn’t worrying about my race, I was able to swim without reservations or fear, and this helped me to much better than I would have otherwise.

Put Yourself in Position to Race Against the Best

Right before the race I decided that no matter what, I would just give my best. I was determined to stay with Finnerty and Peaty.

At the first 50, we were all out quite fast, but I just continued to race. Another 50 went by, and I was still hanging with the leaders. And then, after another 50, I was still there!

I ended up getting 3rd in the race, behind Kirill Prigoda and Peaty.

I was ecstatic with the result. It was a great start to the season! After the first race, I felt much more comfortable racing against such experienced and established swimmers, and it gave me confidence for the rest of the season.

By starting out strong and believing in myself, I was able to put myself in a race with people that were faster than me.

The Power of the Team

Another aspect of my experience was a sense of belonging with my team, the DC Trident.

In our first team meeting, Coach Kaitlin Sandeno emphasized the importance of having a good team environment. As someone new to ISL, I didn’t really understand what she meant, but soon I came to realize how much of an impact a positive team makes.

Everyone was so supportive of each other, and even though we had only met each other in the previous week, we were cheering for each other like we’d been on the same team for years.

We gave each other tips on swimming, played games together, and just enjoyed being together.

I think that this is something that was missing from professional swimming before. It’s hard to make swimming a team sport after college, which can easily lead to burnout.

However, now having a team behind you, a professional swimmer can always have someone supporting them, and this is a great part of the International Swimming League.


Beyond these important things, I learned much in my time in Budapest.

I had a great time getting to meet swimmers from around the world, and being surrounded by such excellent swimmers only encourages me to better myself, and I believe many other swimmers had similar experiences.

I’m looking forward to next season already!

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