The words of a World Champion
By Nancy Heslin
There may be close to 80 people on the planet who can call themselves an ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Champion but 32-year-old Desirée Andersson has the distinction of winning the World title in two divisions: Women’s category with Fanny Kuhn (2019) and Mixed with Victor Dahl (2021).
On July 9, she is teaming up with Amanda Nilsson at ÖTILLÖ World Series Engadin. Their goal is to be on the total podium.
SLM: You were born in Stockholm and grew up in the suburbs south of the city. What was your childhood like?
Desirée Anderson: With my parents and my sister who is two years younger, we were a normal Swedish family who skied in the winter and enjoyed swimming and being outside at the summerhouse. Growing up, I wanted to be a postman. I practiced on our mailbox, dropping off letters from my bike without stopping.
As a kid, I was a shy. I was never the one to be in center of attention or who was speaking the loudest; I observed. I did like to do sports and was also good at school and doing my homework. Guess I was, and always tried to be, a good girl.
Even now, I am still not the most comfortable talking in front of people and in big groups. But through work it has become better as I have put myself in positions where I have to speak in public. It is the only way to improve.
SLM: Based on your podium finishes, it would be easy to imagine you as a professional athlete. But you studied law and work at the Administrative Court in Stockholm with immigration cases, is that correct?
DA: Yes, I started out as a law clerk handling all types of different cases at the court. After 2 years I began as a rapporteur at the Migration Court (apart of the Administrative court) and then two more years later, I became a specialist rapporteur and handle cases that have been appealed by our Migration board (Migrationsverket). If an asylum seeker get a negative decision, I have to look at the case and see if the decision was right. I write to the judge, sometimes I am at the hearings and I am the one who recommends the outcome and write it for the judge to sign.
I also educate new employees at the court.
It for sure has its difficult moments. And it’s necessary to keep in mind that I need to stick to the law and prejudice and not follow my emotions. But it’s also interesting to learn about current situations in other countries.
SLM: Are you the type of person that has her life planned out and is super organised or do you go with the flow?
DA: That one is a bit hard to answer. I kind of was a person that had my life planned out, at least in my head, but I have realised it’s not possible to plan everything, as things change and you have to adapt. So, I’m a mix of both – but mostly an organised person!
SLM: Watching you swim, it would seem you were born in the water. When did you first start competing in swimming?
DA: I have always liked water. My parents tell the story about a family vacation in Spain one November. I was only a year and a half old but liked to be in the cold shower at the beach and was constantly crawling down to the shore.
I learned how to swim just before turning 6 and joined my first swim club a few months later. I was never a super swimmer, and was not fast enough for individual pool swimming at a national level. But I enjoyed making friends at meets and racing, and I became better and better but very, very slowly!
I definitely wasn’t a runner as a kid.
SLM: What is your first memory of a swimming competition? Did you get nervous at competitions?
DA: I compete at small club events around age 7. I was always nervous. One of my most memorable races was age 12 when I won my first medal. It was at a regional championship and I wasn’t even in the last heat. My parents were so surprised they had to go out and buy one of those disposable cameras. I still remember my time for that race of 100 breaststroke.
But I also remember when I was only 8 hundreds of a second short to qualify for the youth nationals. I had one more chance the week after and I was so nervous I started to puke before the start and finished at 1.5 seconds over qualifying time.
SLM: Did you ever dream of the Olympics?
DA: As a young kid I dreamt of the Olympics but realized after a while I wouldn’t get there. In open water I was good by Swedish standards at that time. I finished second a couple of times at nationals and once at the Nordic championships, too.
SLM: You said you used to train in the pool 20 hours a week. What is your favourite swim drill?
DA: I like to swim dragging my fingertips along the surface and also to swim with a straight arm, I do it every time during my warm up.
When I was younger, I used to train in the pool in the morning, then studied and then went back to the pool again. It was easier not go home in between school and practice. It’s the same now, I like to swim after work before I go home for dinner.
Also having a coach at the pool to give you advice makes you want to improve more and to get positive feedback from that person because positive feedback gives you energy for the rest of your day and general life. And if I swim well, I know I will feel happy and satisfied and it will feel so much better afterwards than not swimming or doing my best.
SLM: How did you get into open water swimming?
DA: I mostly did breaststroke but turned more and more to long distance. My former coach started to do more open water and asked me if I wanted to swim the English Channel with her. I said yes. We started first with Vansbro – a well-known open water race in Sweden. I never ended up swimming the Channel but she did.
I did a few national championships and Nordic championships in open water and also one European cup race in Hamburg. In 2012, Sweden decided to create their first national team in open water. I realised there was a long way between myself and the fastest swimmers. I had never training as much during my last years of law studies but then when I finished, I decided it was time to focus more on work, which I did. But I couldn’t let go of swimming and training, and pretty soon I was back in the pool but not as much as before.
SLM: What has training and sports taught you about life?
DA: So much! First, you make good friends. I learned to be efficient and structured and that you have to win and lose. I learned how to work towards goals even in my everyday life and how to motivate myself. Also, sometimes it is good to focus on something other than training.
SLM: When did you first get involved in swimrun and what do you like about the sport?
DA: I did my first swimrun in 2014 at a Swedish race near our summerhouse. I was asked the day before by my partner who’s other partner had to pull out. It was 22km – 2 km swimming and 20km of running. He brought his girlfriend’s shoes for me to wear and I used his swimming race pants. And … I had never run that long before. But I enjoyed it!
I love to explore new places through the sport, places I would never see otherwise. I also like to be in a team to share the experience and help each other. I like the freedom of swimrun, it can take you where you want over land and water, and you can choose what suits you that day when it comes to training. And all the lovely people in and around the sport who give me so much.
SLM: Best ever swimrun moment?
DA: I mean crossing the ÖTILLÖ World Championship finish line as a winner is really great and hard to beat, both times. The first time especially because I hadn’t done the race before. But it’s more that I appreciate and remember all beautiful places I get to see and the feeling of doing it together with someone.
SLM: It was heart-warming to see you race with Fanny at Isles of Scilly. I think it was because you are the faces of the Golden Bib era, a time when swimrunning was taking off prior to Covid. How did you end up teaming up with Fanny and how do you complement each other as a team?
DA: I have had a lot of good teammates and have worked well together with all of them – it’s surprising how easy – but Fanny will always be a bit special, something extraordinary. We come from similar backgrounds and understand each other. From our first race trip together to Hvar in 2018, I knew we would stay really good friends. We made such a good team on and off the course.
We didn’t know each other even if we were at the same swimming events but we had seen each other. She was a bit better than me but Nicolas Remires of Team Envol asked me in December 2017 if I could team up with Fanny for Hvar 2018. I am happy he did!
I think we made such a good team because we had the same expectations, goals and idea of why we do swimrun. We have both put in a lot of hours at the pool and share the same focus before and during the race: we have a goal, we want to win but the fun part is important too, we are serious but not too serious.
SLM: What does racing and winning mean to you?
DA: I would be lying if I said winning was not important. It is. I also see I am getting something back for all the hours I did in the pool without really succeeding. Racing in general motivate me during training but it’s also that I love the people in the sport and the atmosphere at the races. That makes me most happy.
You know, I was good in school and okay at swimming. I liked my swim group but with swimrun I have found something extra. It is hard to describe but a feeling of belonging to a community. And I like that.
SLM: Do you set an objective every season for yourself?
DA: I kind of do. I chose races and then my goal is always to perform my best. Like last year, my main focus was to win ÖTILLÖ, The Swimrun World Championship in the Mixed division with Victor Dahl. For this season, I am struggling to find a good goal. Isles of Scilly was on my Bucket List and I really wanted to do it with Fanny! So happy we could do it. (The won the Women’s category and came third overall.)
SLM: Can you give me an example of a typical training week and do you take time off?
DA: I don’t like this question and get it quite often. I don’t really have a typical training week and I always think people expect me to do something special, very structured and a lot of hours … but I don’t. I swim with my club 3 sessions a week (2h/session) sometimes more, sometimes less. I normally run something longer during the weekend. How much I run depends on what else is happening during that week. I try not to run two days in a row, that’s something I have had as a plan for a long time. I think it prevents injury.
From December to February I do less running. This winter I did more skiing instead. For one month I actually didn’t run at all, instead I did ski. During summer, I do swimrun sessions instead of long runs or add them. I try to give myself some brief “off seasons” after every race, if possible.
SLM: Are you super disciplined about what you eat and drink – both on a day-to-day basis and also leading up to race day?
DA: No, I’m not. Before a race I try to make sure I am eating enough so I don’t start with too little energy. I also try to remind myself to drink a bit more water since I’m not good at that normally. I like to eat pasta or rice before a race.
SLM: Do you have any pre-race rituals– a certain song, a special juice, meditation? And after?
DA: Not really, I used to do a certain thing in the pool the last session before a race, but I no longer do it every time. After a race I try to reward myself a bit but with ice cream or something like that. I love ice cream!
SLM: Do you get nervous before a race like we mortals? How do you cope with nerves?
DA: I do but not as much as before swim meets. It makes it easier to be in a team with someone, you share the nervousness and can lighten up the mood together. But it’s always hard to manage my own pressure and expectations. I try to focus on the reward, the feeling of finishing a race, and remind myself I only do this because it is fun and challenging.
SLM: How has the Women’s division changed since you started racing in swimrun and do you think the community is more supportive than other disciplines?
DA: I think there are more women at a higher level of competition and more women from countries other than Sweden. But there is still more to be done.
I think it’s a very friendly sport and supportive, and it is free. You compete on the same level as men, doing the same distances, and compete not really against each other but at the same course at the same time – it makes it motivating and fun. You can also compete together with men in a Mixed team.
Swimrun is women of all ages, reunited by a sport. Most women in swimrun support each other because maybe the next race you will race together. There is something about the atmosphere, it’s simply special! And lots of women who do swimrun like to experience new places in a fun way.
SLM: You have a unique name for a Swede. In the spiritual world, desire is the positive element that leads us to fulfilling dreams. Do you feel like your name brings good luck and drive?
DA: I have never thought of it as bringing me luck but who knows, maybe it does for racing. The name is of French origin but it is actually a royal name in Sweden. My parents just liked it and picked royal names for both my sister and I.
Follow Desirée on Instagram.