“One thing I am really grateful for is that both of my coaches, when I asked them about AmeriCorps, really encouraged me to do this,” says Anna Kottakis ’22. “Even though they knew it might not be the best thing for me as a swimmer, they knew it was the best thing for me as a person.”
james poulson
james poulson
“One thing I am really grateful for is that both of my coaches, when I asked them about AmeriCorps, really encouraged me to do this,” says Anna Kottakis ’22. “Even though they knew it might not be the best thing for me as a swimmer, they knew it was the best thing for me as a person.”

Away Games

After one year of suspended sports, three student-athletes share what they’ve learned
by Roy Greim ’14
THE NEXT TIME the Swarthmore Garnet compete in any manner of intercollegiate athletics, more than 500 days will have passed since contests were canceled in March 2020. Many student-athletes have already relinquished half of their college athletic careers to the pandemic, while others have been unable to close out their final seasons. Across sports, Swarthmoreans have navigated these challenges in their own ways, demonstrating the resilience cultivated through years of practice and competition.

Just Keep Swimming

Swimming in Sitka Sound off the coast of southeastern Alaska is a little bit different from doing laps in Swarthmore’s Ware Pool. For one thing, there is a higher probability of sharing the lane in the frigid sound with seals and sea lions.

“I had a run-in with the sea lions in October, which was very frightening,” says Anna Kottakis ’22. The neuroscience and English double major from Clarence Center, N.Y., has been living in the remote community of Sitka this year as an AmeriCorps volunteer. And the lifelong swimmer hasn’t let wildlife or the 50-degree water temperatures keep her from her favorite pastime.

“The seals are much sweeter, and they’re really curious,” she says. “They’ll swim up next to you just to check you out, which is very off-putting, but you get used to it.”

Kottakis, who won a bronze medal for the Garnet in the 100-yard backstroke at the 2020 Centennial Conference Championships, decided to take a leave of absence this school year after struggling with remote learning last spring. She applied to and was placed with AmeriCorps for a 10-month program in Sitka working at a boarding high school that predominantly serves Alaska Native students.

“It’s been a really humbling experience,” says Kottakis, who leads after-school activities for the recreation department, supervising groups like the creative writing club, the environmental club, and one of several Native dance groups on campus. As she’s learned more about the culture through observing dances and bonding with her students, Kottakis has broadened her horizons.

“It’s taught me not to get too hung up on academics,” says the scholar who has always made academics a priority. In her new community, she’s become aware of all the life skills that she needs to learn: “I still don’t know what to do if a bear approaches me, and I can’t fish.”

“if everyone in the world could just see how our team does it, how our guys from very different belief systems and backgrounds become best friends — Wouldn’t the world be a better place, if that model grew?”
— Matt Midkiff, swarthmore baseball coach
But Kottakis has found time to swim, both in open water and the school’s indoor pool. Her regimen is less intense than it would be if Swarthmore’s team were competing, but she credits the change in landscape and routine with helping her better appreciate the sport. Time in Alaska has also helped her prioritize her mental health, she says, shaping the way she approaches her Swarthmore commitments.

“I’ve been swimming since I was 4 years old, so it’s nice to have a little time away to recharge and be reminded why I like it,” she says. “I’ve also learned that it’s healthiest to know how to compartmentalize and when to mentally put something away. I can’t endlessly stress about dual meets or qualifying times; I have to work hard at practice and be a good teammate, and then trust that it’s going to take me where I need to be.”

Thrown a Curveball

During the 2020 MLB season, Josh Bein ’23 watched an average of two games every night, intently studying hitters during their at-bats, trying to keep himself mentally sharp off the diamond.

Bein, an outfielder from Delmar, N.Y., was 12 games into his Swarthmore baseball career when he received the news that the final game of the Garnet’s spring break trip would be the last time he’d take the field that season. The squad, which was 10-2 overall with wins over nationally ranked teams, was poised to be one of the strongest head coach Matt Midkiff had led in years.

“I was in a much better position than the seniors, but it was tough to see them have their careers end so abruptly,” Bein says. “As athletes, we take a lot of comfort in the fact that we can somewhat control when our careers are over, so it’s jarring, to say the least.”

Since then, Bein has been doing all he can to stay in shape — from sending Snapchat videos of himself practicing his swing to his teammates, to traveling to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a month to participate in the Beach Collegiate Baseball League with Zach Camp ’22 and Cole Hebble ’21.

When the time comes to don a Swarthmore uniform again, he wants to be as prepared as possible.

Josh Bein wearing a black Swarthmore baseball jersey and black baseball hat, looking straight at the camera.
“You see everybody else working hard, and you don’t want to be the guy who lets the team down,” says outfielder Josh Bein ’23. “So on those days when you don’t feel like it, you just have to step up and do what you have to do.”
“We are really motivated because we see other Division III teams around the country playing right now and we don’t want to lag behind,” he says. “We can’t let all the hard work we put in when we were on campus fall by the wayside.”

Bein, who plans to play collegiately after graduation with additional eligibility granted by the NCAA, has learned from the experience that he can’t take for granted the time spent with his “brotherhood” of teammates.

“I wish that I could have told myself a year ago that the season was going to end soon and I wouldn’t see some people for a while,” he says. “Going forward, I have to cherish the few opportunities that I do have and realize that nothing is guaranteed.”

Abroad, and then Suddenly Back

Josephine Thrasher ’21 had big plans for 2020: The biology major was going to study abroad in Switzerland, using the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach a higher level of French comprehension. Then, in the fall, she was to complete her collegiate volleyball career as a co-captain with good friend Alyssa Nathan ’21, cultivating a positive culture for a team bringing in a large class of first-years.

Instead, Thrasher was forced to return to the United States early and to juggle summer opportunities with the Swiss academic calendar. Though she was able to secure housing on campus in the fall to conduct thesis research on plant responses to stress, the middle blocker found herself practicing volleyball for the first time without Nathan by her side. She felt isolated, likening Swarthmore to the Upside Down from Stranger Things: a place that is both intimately familiar yet uncanny in its emptiness.

Rather than dwelling on what was different, Thrasher saw her sport as an outlet — and a chance to mentor younger student-athletes and escape from the chaos of the outside world.

Despite the added challenge of having to wear a mask during practices interrupted by periodic sanitizing breaks, volleyball was a constant, an anchor in the Upside Down.

Josephine Thrasher wearing a garnet Swarthmore volleyball jersey and black shorts. She has just tossed up a blue-and-white volleyball and has her right arm back as she prepares to strike it.
“What I keep trying to tell myself is, ‘The only thing that you can control when it comes to the uncontrollable is how you respond to it,’” says Josephine Thrasher ’21. Since the pandemic cut short her study-abroad experience in Switzerland and eliminated her senior volleyball season, the biology major has found comfort in the routine of working out.
“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed being part of a team until it was taken away from me,” Thrasher says. “One of the most amazing things in the world is being in a hard workout, weight-lift, or practice with your team and having everybody cheer each other on. There’s so much camaraderie, and that’s refreshing when you’ve been isolated for a while.”

Thrasher had been offered a Fulbright but decided instead to accept “a really amazing job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to work in an epigenetics lab.” In the meantime, she is not mourning the loss of her final collegiate season. As a walk-on who didn’t intend to compete in college, she hoped to have a career as “the happiest benchwarmer” in the NCAA.

“Whenever I’d get really stressed out during the season or so sore that I couldn’t walk,” she says, “I’d always remind myself, every minute I got on the court is one more than I thought I was going to have in my life.”