Kristel Köbrich: The consistency in the water

Kristel Köbrich of Chile swims in the 1500m freestyle heats during the 2017 Pro Swim Series Santa Clara (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Kristel Köbrich of Chile swims in the 1500m freestyle heats during the 2017 Pro Swim Series Santa Clara (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Chilean swimmer continues training with the same excitement for her fifth Olympic Games, as her favourite event will finally be included in the programme: the 1,500m freestyle

Every morning at 4am, Chilean swimmer Kristel Köbrich wakes up and starts her day.

An hour later she is in the pool for her first training session.

She usually swims for two and a half hours in the morning and then another two and a half hours in the afternoon. In total, she can swim about 10km a session - 20km a day.

On top of this, Köbrich adds several gym sessions as well as stretching exercises. And that's what she's been doing almost every day even before making her Olympic debut 16-years ago at Athens 2004.

The Chilean is known for her consistency in training.

And despite all these years, her love for swimming has never waned.

"It is what I am most passionate about. It is something that I have come to realise again in these months of pandemic, when for a few weeks I could not train in the water," explained the 35-year-old to Tokyo 2020.

For someone so used to such a demanding routine, dealing with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 was a great challenge. For the first time in a long time, it forced her to stop and think about her goals.

“I have realised that the goal is to be a better athlete, because this is what I enjoy the most. It has been very nice to realise that and to understand that [even if] today we do not have a fixed calendar or some major event, we are preparing to become better athletes and a better person," she said.

“I am no longer 15-years-old. I work, I live, I am passionate about this, and I understand why I do it. And I still want to compete for my country - [it's] something that I love. I am moved by these things, and during these days much more. I have the same motivation as always."

The debut of the 1,500m

Luckily for her, Köbrich has her place for Tokyo 2020 assured despite the postponement of the Olympic Games. In fact, the Chilean qualified for her fifth Olympic Games in March 2019 during the Pro Swim Series in the United States. There she came second in the 1,500m freestyle with a 16:17:92, beating the qualification mark (16:32:04).

The women's 1,500m freestyle will be part of the Olympic swimming programme for the first time at Tokyo 2020. This is something that makes Köbrich especially excited since she is more comfortable at distance racing after competing at the the 800m freestyle and 10km open water marathon at previous editions of the Games.

“It is awesome because it is an event that I've been waiting for a long time to be in the Olympics. I already have six World Championships with consecutive finals in that event," she pointed out.

"An Olympic final is what we have always wanted. When I got the news last year, it was very pleasing. FINA has long been fighting to include at least two more long distance events. Finally, they are in the calendar. I'm very happy."

Kristel Köbrich of Chile competes in the 1500m Freestyle during the 2019 Pro Swim Series in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kristel Köbrich of Chile competes in the 1500m Freestyle during the 2019 Pro Swim Series in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

She rediscovered that the love for her craft and the debut of her favourite event at the Olympics are two things that keep her motivated during the months when she needed to rely on her imagination to stay in shape.

Köbrich resides and trains in Córdoba, Argentina, where the confinement has been especially long.

In the first few weeks, she had to train at home, doing all kinds of exercises including using an exercise bike. It was the first time in her life that she has been out of the water for so long. Later, she was able to swim in the 12m pool where she lives, tied to a rope and without moving in the water for a total of six weeks.

Finally, in mid-June, she returned to the pool - whilst social distancing.

“This situation has been a daily learning [experience] - very challenging. But now we are [back] to more normality. The only thing that is not normal is that I can only go from the house to the pool and from the pool to the house. The gyms are not open yet. I keep doing exercises at home," she described.

Getting ready for her fifth Games

When Köbrich thinks about her Olympic debut, she didn't imagine that she would continue to be competing at such a high level for so many years.

Definitely, the Games in Greece continue to occupy a prominent place in her memory.

Not only did she make her debut at the age of 18 - finishing 15th in the 800m freestyle - but she was also the flag bearer for Chile.

At Beijing 2008, she competed in the 800m freestyle as well as the 10km open water marathon. Köbrich remembers it as "magical", but her experience was marred by an incident in the marathon. In the final stages, she felt faint and was unable to finish.

"That made me learn a lot because you have to know how to listen to your body, understand that we are human beings, that we make mistakes much more than we want and that it is okay to make mistakes, but we have to know how to avoid it," she said.

At London 2012 things didn't go the way she wanted either. Köbrich finished 14th in the 800m freestyle. Then at Rio 2016, she was not satisfied with her 17th place finish in the 800m.

“I did a very bad time [compared to] what I had been working on. But it was a lesson to improve my concentration," she recalled.

Sports life beyond the Games

Apart from the Olympic Games, Köbrich has an impressive track record at international events where, again, her consistency stands out. With all her achievements, she is considered the best Chilean swimmer in history.

“There are few swimmers who have stayed like this for a long time and I am very proud. I am very aware that it has been a very long journey, very hard, very silent, but I am very happy. Very grateful," she said.

It is for all these reasons that the swimmer has not yet thought about retiring.

She doesn't want to rush into making any decisions. There are many competitions she would like do - if she feels strong enough. After Tokyo, there is the 2022 World Swimming Championships then the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile.

"It would be nice to take part in the Pan American at home, but today in my reality, to be honest, there is still a long time to go," she said.

Even so, Köbrich has considered her future after swimming but without much stress.

“The day I make the decision to hang up the swimsuit, it will be [made] calmly, with the humility to lie down and say, I really gave everything. Without saying, I could have done this or that. I always try to be super honest and be in peace with myself."

And it is this peace and discipline that makes Köbrich continue swimming day in and day out.