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Celebrating the achievements of a GSSE 2023 medal-winning swimmer

Sarah Demicoli with coach Roland Esküdt.

Sarah Demicoli won silver in 200m fly and 4x200m relay

From the moment Sarah Demicoli first dipped her toes into the water her destiny as a talented and successful swimmer began to unfold.

With each stroke, she demonstrated an unyielding determination that led to her consistently proving her prowess.

Well-known in the open water swimming community for years of triumphs in the discipline, recently her focus turned towards competitive swimming in the pool and eyeing the prize at the recently held 2023 Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE) in Malta.

Demicoli garnered two silver medals – one in the 200m butterfly event and one in the 4x200m relay team, with fellow swimmers Mya Azzopardi, Francesca Falzon Young, and Sasha Gatt.

Behind this success story are months of preparation and sacrifice.

The first step saw her take a gap year from her studies and move to Hungary to train full-time. This was made possible by means of support received from her parents, coach Roland Esküdt and his family, and the Aquatic Sports Association of Malta.

Demicoli also benefitted from a Scholarship issued by the Government of Malta through the Malta Sports Scholarships Scheme which provides financial support to athletes like her, who wish to improve their level of skill and performance in their sport.

Going back to 2022 and having completed her undergraduate law course at the University of Malta, Demicoli decided to take a break from her studies to focus solely on swimming.

The motivation behind this decision, the Malta swimmer explains, goes back to the summer of 2018 when she started training under former Neptunes head coach, the Hungarian Esküdt. Although having been swimming since she was five years old, working closely with coach Esküdt, Demicoli has produced the fastest times in her swimming career making her become one of Malta’s top swimmers.

Her drastic development enabled her to achieve so many of her goals in the sport, including taking part and achieving a good placing at the World Fina Open Water Swim Series, breaking several Maltese national records, and being chosen to represent Malta at the European Championships.

Building from one achievement to the next, towards the end of 2021, both Demicoli and her coach had set their hearts on a potential qualification for the GSSE.

The fact that the 2023 edition of these Games was to be held in Malta proved even more enticing.

“At the time it seemed like a long shot. Ultimately, it is every athlete’s dream to compete for your country in your own country and we both knew that taking part at the GSSE would be one of the major highlights in my swimming career,” said Demicoli.

The coveted qualification came through during the 2022 National Championships with her performance in the 200m butterfly.

From then on, the dreams started to become bigger.

Now it was about the possibility of medalling at the Games. The only stumbling block was the fact that Esküdt had to return back to Hungary in 2022, just one year before the Games.

Whilst timing would not have been considered as being ideal, for Demicoli it was just right. Having just completed her university studies, she jumped at the offer to continue training under his guidance in Hungary.

“We are over the moon with the results as not only did we manage to achieve our goal by securing a silver medal in my main event – the 200m butterfly, but we also managed to win another silver medal, along with my relay teammates in the 4x200m freestyle relay, and establish a new national record too,” said Demicoli.

Sarah Demicoli’s training pool in Celldömölk, Hungary.

While her results in the GSSE are widely known, one would be keen to know what went behind this success, particularly how living away from home during her gap year impacted her training and development as a swimmer.

While there is no doubt about how disciplined she is, Demicoli admitted that living away from home during this year helped her develop into a more disciplined, mature, and independent person. Such skills complemented her focus on training ensuring that all the sacrifices made by her coach, family, and herself were not futile.

With no academic responsibilities detracting attention from her training, Sarah enjoyed a flexible schedule. There was no need to wake up at 5am to fit in two swim sessions and her university commitments.

This meant getting a proper recovery time, which included getting frequent massages, stretching properly, getting proper nutrition, and focusing on mental training – all extremely important components that an athlete needs to bring together when competing and training at a higher level. Unfortunately, many times these are seen as luxuries.

Such a holistic approach to competitive preparation is not possible when having to juggle student life. Having this kind of well-rounded structure, facilitated the design of training sessions which were catered specifically to the goals she had set out to achieve, making such training sessions more efficient and intense.

Nonetheless, such a change in lifestyle is not without challenges.

From living in a relatively sheltered background, initially, it was a struggle to live abroad without any academic responsibilities.

One must consider that prior to her move, Sarah was busy, rushing from early morning training to university for lectures and study groups to rushing back to the pool for even more training. A challenge she is not afraid to admit she underestimated.

“However, thinking about it now, I feel so grateful to have been given this opportunity to take a gap year as it has given me a break from the fast-paced life of a student-athlete, enabling me to achieve my goals when it comes to the sport as well as to stop and reflect on my future swimming and professional career,” Demicoli added.

From left: Francesca Falzon Young, Sasha Gatt, Mya Azzopardi and Sarah Demicoli pose with their silver medal. Photo: Max Cassar

Once the euphoria of living abroad had passed and she settled into a routine, Demicoli started to feel lonely and homesick and this is when doubts started to kick in.

“Were it not for the love, care, and guidance from my parents and immeasurable support from my coach and his family, I could have easily packed my bags and returned to Malta,” Demicoli said.

Being in Hungary meant that Demicoli – who was fortunate to have all this support – was able to explore different training environments.

Through her coach, she was able to meet and talk to famous Hungarian coaches, as well as iconic professional Olympic swimmers including Kristóf Rasovszky, Petra Halmai, and the Verraszto siblings.

Mental training

The privilege of meeting such iconic athletes acted as a motivator but Demicoli also cites the importance of mental training which helped her continue working to reach her targets and her dreams.

Persevering through the tough times, results were being produced and this gave Sarah the motivation to push even harder.

“I have heard many people say that there are certain skills which school cannot teach you and I can now truly understand what it means,” she said.

“During my year abroad I have become more independent, I have learnt how to be more disciplined and confident. This past year has been full of new experiences, creating unique memories, and making new friends.

“It is definitely an experience that I will hold close to my heart!”

With the Games now done and dusted, it is time for Demicoli to transition back to studies. Her priority is to start reading for her Masters of Advocacy course starting this October.

The now GSSE-medal winner is confident that her Hungarian experience will be put to good use as she gets back into student mode and eventually as she launches her legal career.

Sarah Demicoli (centre) poses with her parents Vince and Christine.

Sarah’s experience in Hungary makes her a wonderful ambassador for those athletes considering such a move. However, she warns they should only go for it if they truly love their sport; and, at a time when their motivations to succeed are high.

She added, that although being away from family for such a long time in a foreign country, where language might also be a barrier it is a wonderful experience that they will learn to love. Looking back, Demicoli would not have it any other way.


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