Written By: Maggie Foight
Leah Gingrich, native of Enola, PA, has had a long journey to the ISL.
After her early swimming days with West Shore YMCA and East Pennsboro High School (during which she qualified for the Olympic Trials at age 14), Gingrich joined the University of Texas Longhorns. There, the distance swimmer became a two-time All-American, four-time Honorable Mention All-American and six-time Big 12 Champion. During roughly the same timeframe, she made finals five times at several USA Swimming National Championships, and twice in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200m butterfly and 800m freestyle.
“I had a lot of success when I was in high school… I just felt like I was in such a great place to go into four years of college swimming, where, you know, I was going to come out reaching the goals that I wanted to reach,” she says. However, “That just didn’t really happen.”
After university graduation, Gingrich left the swimming scene. She explains that her decision was not made hastily, and was rather one that came after a lot of deliberation and internal examination.
By the time the 2012 Olympic Trials came around, the distance swimmer says that she was skeptical about attending, and she ultimately walked away. Gingrich mentions that she was no longer in love with swimming the way she was when she was younger. In the end, “I think it was just a lot of frustration,” Gingrich says. “At some point, you know, you just burn out whether you want to or not... I just was at a point where I was really unhappy and didn’t enjoy swimming anymore.”
Six years after her decision to retire from swimming, Gingrich says her return was completely unexpected.
The distance swimmer coaches for the Columbus Aquatic Club, which started a master’s program in 2018. Gingrich decided to join the adults for the exercise, only to keep in shape. “When I tell you I took six years off, I struggled to follow any kind of fitness plan at all. I hate running. I don’t really like doing weights or anything like that,” she says.
Then, Gingrich realized that she was improving much faster than she thought possible, and she fell in love with the process again. After a last minute decision to swim a 200 LCM butterfly challenge, she “just got hooked” back on “the good days, the bad days, the racing. All of it.”
It wasn’t until recently that Gingrich adopted the title of full-time professional swimmer. “I feel like you have to be paid to be a professional,” she says, and so she didn’t claim the name as her own until she won prize money for the first time last February, at a swim meet in Mexico. Now, alongside numerous other well-known professionals, she will join the Frog Kings in the ISL’s third swimming season. “What’s really cool about the ISL is that it opens up the door financially for so many more athletes to become professional, if they choose to,” Gingrich says. As a result, the best swimmers can interact with one another without major divisive financial barriers.
However, the distance swimmer still struggles for recognition within the swimming community. She draws upon a popular comparison to the NFL and its football players, saying that swimmers aren’t really as valued unless they’re big names like Caeleb Dressel or Michael Phelps.
“I forget to look back on all the really great things that I’ve done in my life and in my career,” Gingrich says. She has her hopes and her goals, but she says that her experiences are great nonetheless, and so she considers herself successful. “But of course,” she adds, “it’s because of wanting more and more and more and wanting that success. Yes, I see myself as successful. And I want more.”
Ultimately, Gingrich emphasizes the need to recover, both mentally and physically.
“It’s really important to learn, to love the journey, and to make sure that you’re loving what you’re doing,” she says. “As long as you’re loving what you’re doing, you’re going to be successful.”
Gingrich also hopes to inform others as well about the potential benefits of extended recovery: “I definitely think that I was overtraining a little bit… with COVID, these unexpected couple of months off, you know, this is probably a really good thing for a lot of these [overtrained, exhausted] kids…. [Now you see] a lot of these kids throwing down some pretty impressive times. It’s like, wow, maybe we need to rethink the way that we’re swimming and we’re training…. [Taking time off] is probably more necessary for a lot more people than we want to admit or realize.”
Leah is in her fifth year with the Columbus Aquatic Club. She made her way to Columbus from Pennsylvania after coaching for three years in Harrisburg for the West Shore YMCA where she swum as an age grouper. Prior to coaching, most of her swimming experience comes in the form of an athlete. Leah was a member of the University of Texas swimming team from 2008 – 2012. As a member of the Longhorns she was a 2-time All-American, 4-time Honorable mention All-American, 6-time Big 12 Champion, 5-time finalist at the USA Swimming National Championships. She has been a member of the Junior National Team, World Youth Team, Pan American Team and World Championship Team where she competed both in the pool and in open water races. She was a 2-time Olympic Trials finalist in 2008 in the 200 fly and 800 free where she finished eighth in both events. Leah has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimswam, and Floswimming over the course of her career. As of this year she still holds 3 YMCA National Records as a member of the West Shore YMCA from 2008, some of the oldest records on the books at those Championships. As a member of her East Pennsboro High School team she was a 4-time NISCA All-American, 6-time Individual State Champion in Pennsylvania and 2-time Pennsylvania State MVP. She is excited about being apart of CAC and being able to share her experiences with the athletes. After taking six (6) years off of competitive swimming after 2012, Leah made her way back to the pool in the Spring of 2018 in her quest to make the 2021 Olympic Team. Since coming back to the pool she has set multiple PR's and is currently ranked top 30 in the world and top 10 in the USA in the 200 fly. Most recently, she was signed to swim for the Tokyo Frog Kings as part of the second season of the International Swim League. She will travel to Budapest, Hungary in the fall of 2020 to compete over 6 weeks.