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Demicoli not ready to rest on her laurels, eyes GSSE berth

Sarah Demicoli has been setting the pace in open water swimming. Photo: Thomas Woods
Sarah Demicoli’s shy and quiet demeanour is in total contrast to her deportment in the water, where she morphs into a strong, controlled, and determined athlete. Maria Vella-Galea spoke with the 20-year-old on her achievements…

Sarah Demicoli’s first foray into the pool was at five years of age, when her parents thought it would be a good idea for her to learn how to swim.

Their priority at the time was for her and her sister to know the basics and be able to handle themselves well should they accidentally fall into the water.

Over the years, Demicoli not only learnt how to swim but also took ballet, singing, and piano lessons. However, it was evident that swimming was her passion. In fact, she has not stopped since aged five, when she took her first lesson at Neptunes WPSC – the club she represents to this very day.

Outside of her swimming life, Demicoli is currently reading Bachelor of Law at the Malta University. 

Whilst many students tend to stop their sporting activities by the time, they leave secondary school, Demicoli has been able to maintain a combined disciplined regime of training and studying.  She is quick to note the substantial support from the University, particularly where international commitments are involved.

Her family’s backing is unmistakable. Not only are they present for every race she competes in but throughout the years, both parents have been volunteering during races hosted at the National Pool by the ASA.  Her father went one step further and started training in open water swimming and even competed in two races. 

“Parents play a pivotal role in determining whether a sport is a fun learning experience or a nightmare,” Demicoli said.

“I am lucky to have had parents recognise this from the onset of my sporting career and have found the right balance – knowing when to push me a bit further and knowing when I just had a bad day and there is nothing I can do about it except learn from it and move on.”

In local competition, Sarah is at the top of her game.

In the recent Open Water Swimming Championships, she beat some of Malta’s top male open water swimmers. This begs the question of what her thoughts of her competition in Malta are.

Demicoli responded that for her, it is about the registered time rather than placing and seeking to improve on that.  She trains regularly with Andre Camilleri, winner of the 2020 Birkirkara St Joseph Open Water Swimming Championships, keeping each other on their toes.

Although Sarah has made a name for herself in the Open Water Swimming scene, she regularly competes in the ASA time trials at the pool. She holds the National Age Group B Record in 200 butterfly.    Demicoli has competed in various meets and events abroad from a very young age.  Some worth mentioning are the one in 2019,  where she competed in the 200m butterfly distance at the CIJ Luxembourg Swimming Meet, finishing in third place. 

She  placed third in Sicily during the Italian Championship. At the 2019 Mediterranean Open Water Swimming Cup in Larnaca, Cyprus, Demicoli raced in the 7,5km distance placing 10th.  In the 2019 World Championships, at Lake Balaton in Hungary, she placed 38th out of 44 swimmers in the 10K in two hours nine minutes.

This was her biggest event and best experience ever, competing with Olympians and some of the biggest names in open water swimming, the likes of Anna Kuna, Haley Andersen and Rachele Bruni. 

The massive improvement in her timings during the last two years from when she started training seriously for open water swimming has helped her to gain confidence and make a good name for herself in this sport.

Malta is surrounded by sea and benefits from excellent climate which facilitates open water swimming all year round, yet there is a limited number of swimmers.

“I think the issue is threefold,” Demicoli said. “Many swimmers prefer the ‘safety’ of the pool, do not like the long hours required to be put into such kind of swimming and local races are limited.”

As regards Malta’s performance on the international scene, Sarah feels that there is potential to do better.

“The major hurdle is the local schooling system particularly at secondary level where the pressure to do well in ‘O’ Levels is high,” Demicoli said.

Photo: Alex Turnbull

“Many athletes sitting for these exams stop for two months – this is a death knell to the performance of an athlete.  Another issue for secondary students is transport – athletes who are required to take school transport sometimes end up having to leave early from their sessions thus accumulating substantial lost training time.

“Academic performance is important, but it should not be detrimental to a competitive athlete.”

Demicoli said that the approach at University is far better. She has found a lot of help through the Athlete Support Programme which has introduced a dynamic system that helps in the shifting of lectures and delaying of assignment submissions should this be necessary. 

COVID-19 brought a lot of uncertainty as access to the pool was not available, so initially Demicoli undertook remote online land-training sessions with her coach and her team-mates.  The pandemic coincided with her exams so at that time, her life revolved around studying.  This caused her sleeping patterns to be disrupted in such a way that she found herself waking up and going for a run at 3am.

As soon as the go ahead to swim in the sea was given, she joined her swimming buddy Andre Camilleri for training swims. 

“As others like us have done, we started adapting to a new way of life,” she said.

“But if there was one thing that the pandemic taught me was the reinforcement of our love for swimming and we became hungry for more.”

When bad days hit Demicoli, she makes it a point to look back as to why she started and why she feels in her element when swimming.  Facebook memories are also a source of motivation as is her coach Roland Eskudt, who keeps on motivating them through inspirational videos and pep talks.

The important thing, Demicoli learnt, is that a bad day is not the end of the world.  She also tries to find the reason – wrong nutrition, more stretching.  The most crucial thing is that this is brushed off as quickly as possible.  

While Demicoli seeks her sources of inspiration, she is inspiring many budding swimmers.  “My advice to upcoming athletes is to keep going, look at the bright side and never give up – face the tough times straight in the face,” Demicoli said.

“There are so many physical and mental benefits to swimming that one should not give up at the first hurdle.”

GSSE dream

The Olympics are every athlete’s ultimate dream. 

Demicoli modestly explains that right now, it is all about taking one step at a time working closely with her coach to improve her timings, for prospective pool and open water competitions, held by FINA and LEN. 

With the 2023 GSSE being held in Malta in 2023, Demicoli has set her heart on a potential qualification.

“Competing for your country in your own country is every athlete’s dream. Representing Malta at the Games of the Small States of Europe in Malta 2023, would definitely be one of the major highlights of my swimming career,” Demicoli said.

In the meantime, Sarah will keep on pushing to achieve her dreams and making her parents and Malta proud.

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