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High-performance sport

“I trained hard night and day”

TU student and high-performance swimmer Leonie Kullmann hasn’t reached her peak yet. An interview about living in the water and finding the right rhythm

In the summer you were at the world championships in Japan and the Universiade in China. How did it go?
I was away for a month, but it seemed more like a year – so much happened. For me they were the first long-course world championships. I wasn’t that satisfied with my performances; I didn’t win any medals. But I wanted to try some things out and discovered ways of approaching problems. Now I can go into the upcoming Olympic season with a good feeling. The way China organized the Universiade was really impressive.

How do you deal with nerves before big races?
I try to keep my nerves under control by breathing, concentrate on the moment and not on what’s going to happen in ten seconds. Sometimes I go through the race once more with the trainer or I phone friends.

Generally, breathing technique is the key in swimming, of course.
The interesting thing is: We swimmers always breathe really fast and shallow, to pump a lot of air into the system as quickly as possible. Bit by bit that becomes a habit when living on land, too. Now, as far as possible, I try to breathe deep into the stomach when I’m not in training. But yes, we do lots and lots of hypoxia training, holding our breath, swimming with less breath – very unpleasant.

What do you think about when you’re swimming in an important race?
I try not to think much. The more I think, the more I stand in my own way. Mostly I think banal things like “You can do it!” or “Just one more length!” My body carries out automatically what I did in training. When it comes to the crunch, it has to stick.

How did you get into swimming?
My parents put me in a swimming club, so I’d learn to swim. But I didn’t want to get in the cold water and I hid in the toilet to get out of training. Then we moved to the USA, where my first successes came. I liked that. But it was only two years ago that I really learned to love it. After coming sixth at the 2021 Olympics, I could have stopped, but I didn’t want to, not yet. Now I enjoy going to training. I’m testing myself. The feeling of being in the water, I didn’t have that before.

What sort of feeling?
Sometimes there’s pain involved. But on holiday when I’m floating on the sea, then it feels a bit like home. I can move in the water. I know where I am. I know what I have to do. I simply feel good in the water.

Are there typical movements or a rhythm you have developed?
Yes, for example in the crawl, I have the rather unusual technique of breathing every three strokes, and I save some energy when I let the shoulder drop slightly and at the same time I get more forward momentum. Finding a rhythm for yourself, that’s key in the end.

You got off to a flying start in the first years of your career up until your appearance at the Olympics in 2016. After that we didn’t hear of you till the 2021 Olympics. Why did you keep going?
I knew I hadn’t reached my peak. I could do more. That’s extreme intrinsic motivation. I trained hard night and day. You always want that one perfect race. But actually in the end you don’t want it. Because after that things only go downhill. Then, for two years, I studied Civil Engineering in the USA, but didn’t make any progress in swimming. In 2019, I went to Berlin.

Back in Germany, you began to study Industrial Engineering and Management at TU Berlin. Why?
That came out of a vocational orientation seminar which was offered by the Olympics Center. With my full training schedule, I manage two to three modules per semester. I do everything online. Just now in China I did a written exam.

That doesn’t leave much leisure time.
No. My training begins at seven in the morning and ends at six in the evening. During the lunch breaks I try to fit in something for university. I normally have competitions at the weekend. My parents taught me early on that it’s important to have something else to do on the side. I tell myself that it’s good for the mind, but in fact studying is a real slog. I’d much rather chill and watch a TV series.

How would you describe yourself as a swimmer?
I’m very disciplined and ambitious. My perfectionism has been my undoing at times in my career. But I’ve got that under control now. I like the idea of competing. For the younger members of the team, I try to be a sensible role model and listen if they need to talk. I find it important to pass on the experience that I’ve gained in my career. That you can keep going at something, and it will work out.

Interview Barbara Halstenberg