By Adam Reinherz
Zoe Skirboll, 16, a Pittsburgh-area high school junior, knows exactly how long she felt like a fish out of water: seven weeks.
The champion swimmer, a Team USA hopeful who qualified for the upcoming Olympic trials, had to stop training in pools due to the pandemic — a hiatus that made her appreciate swimming in a new way.
“Taking that little break honestly made me realize how special the sport was, and how much it meant to me, and how big a part it is in my life,” she said.
But the time away from the water wasn’t exactly a vacation: Skirboll worked hard on dry-land exercises to maintain fitness and develop strength.
Her devotion paid off, said her coach and father Jim Skirboll.
“It’s remarkable how some of these kids are handling this situation,” said Jim Skirboll of his daughter’s discipline during the pandemic. “I’m not sure if I could do that when
I was 16.”
But Zoe Skirboll knows how to keep it in proportion.
“I like to sometimes keep my swimming life separate so I don’t really get overwhelmed,” she said. “Swimming can take a really big toll on your mental health, especially during practices. It’s a really hard sport, and you have to be mentally tough in it. I feel like just taking some breaks from it, like on the weekends, and just being with my friends and them helping me through, it is always great.”
Her father, who swam at Ohio University and heads Racer X Aquatics, structured his daughter’s early workouts around form rather than distance.
By middle school she was recognized as a prodigious swimmer. In 2015, as a fifth-grader, Zoe Skirboll set her first of five national age group records by swimming the 100-meter freestyle in less than a minute. One day later she set a new record in the girls’ 10-and-under 100-meter freestyle. After that, she became the second 10-year-old girl in history to swim the 50-meter freestyle in 24.90 seconds.
By her sophomore year, Zoe Skirboll was training for the Olympic trials. She remembers the moment she knew she made the cut: “That was kind of one of the biggest goals of my whole entire swimming career,” she said. “That was like the best moment. I mean, I worked for it. It was the greatest experience ever.”
Her father couldn’t be more proud.
“It’s just great seeing what your work and your own blood does,” he said. “It’s very special.”
Four months remain until the Olympic trials, but Zoe Skirboll’s future is filled with meets and opportunities no matter what. In August she verbally committed to the University of Virginia, a swim team powerhouse.
Zoe Skirboll is relishing the chance to swim with the UVA Cavaliers under coach Todd DeSorbo, but for now is focused on more immediate matters — as is her father.
“I’m sure a lot of dads, if they coach their kids, they can relate to it,” Jim Skirboll said. “The swimming career might last for me and Zoe maybe another year or two, then she’ll go to the University of Virginia, but the bond we have will last a lifetime.”