A Culture of Tattoos in Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Azaria Basile

By Andrew Jovanovic, Swimming World College Intern

Whether it’s something you want to acknowledge or not, there exists a culture of tattoos in the sport of swimming. Unlike other sports, it is almost impossible (unless you are pretty creative) to hide a tattoo. Since we stretch, train, and compete with minimal amounts of clothing, what we put on our bodies becomes a symbol of who we are and what we want the world to know about us.

With swimming in particular, there is extra significance to what appears on our skin, since we cannot hide what we put on our bodies. Permanent markings allow swimmers to share with the world their philosophies, their personalities, and their competitiveness.

Strength and Honor

Nicholas Petersen, a sophomore at Northwestern Universityhas three tattoos. Two of the three are on his hips which are usually covered by a drag suit or a fast skin. However, the most visible permanent mark is located on his right bicep, “Voimasta Ja Kunniasta” or “Strength and Honor” in Finnish.

“I got it to serve as a reminder,” remarks Petersen. “Whenever I’m feeling down I can remind myself of my goals and to be a man.”

In swimming you have to be strong and put in tremendous amounts of work. Having a reminder is what humbles some and allows them to carry on. Finding the different ways to stay engaged and focused on goals is what makes sport so interesting.

“As for the honor part of the tattoo, a good way to find motivation is to find the honor one has for your family, your goals, and your team,” Petersen said. “In competition, simply put, the strength part reminds me of the confidence in the training I’ve done and the honor reminds me behind the blocks of who I compete for.”


Photo Courtesy: Andrew Jovanovic

The Summer of ’04

Wisconsin junior Cannon Clifton currently has two tattoos with the most important and commanding one being displayed on his left bicep in the form of Roman numerals “MMIV” or in Arabic form “2004.”

“I chose Latin because I didn’t want a standard look,” commented Clifton on the uniqueness of his bold four numerals. “It reminds me of the turning point in my life and the sport.”

clifton_cannon_ tattoo

Photo Courtesy: Andrew Jovanovic

“It (2004) was when my mom started coaching me and when I started to get really serious about swimming.” MMIV embodies a waypoint in Clifton’s life in which a conscious decision was made. “That year was the start of my passion for the sport and where that love began.”

When you permanently mark your skin in such a visible spot, you see it all the time and its always there. It serves as an articulation of one’s philosophy and personality as a swimmer.

“I am lucky to see it all the time. In terms of competition, it reminds me to go out and have fun. Other than being a reminder of why I started and continue to swim, it beckons to me to push through hard times both in and out of the pool,” Clifton said.

He conquers, who conquers himself

With a nod towards antiquity and class, Hawkeye junior Kyle Patnode describes one of the two tattoos he wears, the Latin phrase “vincit, qui se vincit,” idiomatically translated for the non-Latin major as, ‘He conquers, who conquers himself’.”

“Before meets, my teacher would always tell me this quote as a way of showing her support,” recalls Patnode of his former mentor. “She was my my favorite teacher. I looked up to her like a second mom. We had a very close relationship and it was that bond that supported me athletically and academically. She knew what was up and what needed to be done.”

Even though Latin quotes are somewhat common, it shows understanding and forethought when put to use with the knowledge of conjugations and declensions. It also serves as a reminder through the hard times.


Photo Courtesy: Andrew Jovanovic

“I got it after freshman year after not making the Big Ten squad. Getting the quote helped me keep my head up and reminds me to do so what the going get tough,” Patnode said.

The other tattoo is worn on Patnode’s back and is of the iconic Hawkeye.


Photo Courtesy: Andrew Jovanovic

“For me the Hawkeye equals tradition. So many of the guys would get it and during my freshman year, a lot of the seniors had it. It was something I looked up to,” reminisced Patnode. “We are a team that sticks together. Family: united and together. To represent that on your shoulder forever is very important to me and the guys who have it.”

Tattoos are found everywhere and carry different meanings. For swimmers, by the virtue of our “uniform” the act of marking ourselves speaks volumes to who we are and what we are made of. Whether it be a philosophy of pushing through the hard times, a comment on the personalities that carry the ink, or the subtle reminders of competition confidence, the tattoo culture in swimming is not going to vanish anytime soon.


  1. Leanne Rowland-Slough

    When I swam in college West Chester University was known as the most tattooed team in our conference (PSAC). Almost everyone of us had at least 1 tattoo. I love my tattoos and have WCU Swimming on my hip bone with e shamrock for good luck. Plus other tattoos as well

  2. Belinda Norris

    Is it true you can’t swim in the Olympics if you have a tattoo?

    • Commonwealth Current

      Our friend & tattooed Olympian Anthony Ervin definitively says “no” 🙂

    • Belinda Norris

      Oh thank you! My son is a national swimmer and competed last week for 5 days 🙂 he is a breaststroker and backstroker. I’ll show him this post. He’ll be stoked!! He turns 16 on Friday and is 6’3 lol.

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      No. Anthony Ervin.

    • Hetty Oliver

      My son was a swimmer and has two tattoos on his back. I always said to him that he could only put them where they did not show out of his clothes as one day he will be in the Corporate world and you cannot have tattoos showing everywhere. His are very tastefully done.

  3. Linda Engledow

    Pushing “Not Like..” Ugly. Sad. Not a good roll model for kids. Just sayn’????

    • Zac Payne

      This is the 21st century.

    • Linda Engledow

      I know…I have grand kids swimming. I have a tat. Mine was being in ’84 Olympics. I’m kinda with it;-). Just not wanting the total body paint.

    • Miranda Reetz

      You’re absolutely right that people with tattoos are bad role models for kids. I mean all people with tattoos are bad people ?

  4. Eva Tash

    Lilly Etlinger

  5. Miranda Reetz

    Pretty disappointed this didn’t have a female example in the article

  6. Rubén Arévalo Galindo

    “culture” retrograde seems to me. Although, every one have the right to express the way it likes.

  7. avatar

    I’ve always preferred to wear mine on the inside, but if that’s what it takes to keep yourself motivated, knock yourself out!!

  8. Jackie Sleigh Hayselden

    Swimmers bodies have to be the best looking in the sporting world. Why spoil them. Just saying…..that’s all ?

  9. Valentino Sini

    I have Pegasus..The horse Of Gods?Is free Like me

  10. Karen Howells

    Aisha thought this might interest you

  11. avatar

    So being old, female, and having a traditional tattoo doesn’t help in some circumstances. Traditional tattoos were the whole point of the ban.