The ISL Experience and What Matters Most to Beata Nelson

Beata Nelson (photo: Mike Lewis)
Beata Nelson after a race during the 2021 ISL regular season in Naples, Italy -- Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

The ISL Experience and What Matters Most to Beata Nelson

When the 2020 NCAA championships were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beata Nelson saw her illustrious college career with the Wisconsin Badgers abruptly come to an end, and her future in swimming was unclear. After one rough season as a freshman, she had developed into the top collegiate swimmer in the country, sweeping wins in the 200-yard IM, 100-yard back and 200-yard back at the 2019 NCAAs, and her 100 back was a huge American record. But beyond the limits of college racing, she had not been able to establish a foothold in long course.

The most powerful weapon in Nelson’s swimming arsenal is her underwater dolphin kicks, and in short course, she spent more than half her backstroke races underwater. Long course, on the other hand, limited the use of those kicks, and her best finish at a U.S. Nationals at that point was 10th. She was a star in short course, but she had yet to find a way to extend that range to the 50-meter pool. Swimmers in that situation have had a tough time making it as a professional swimmer — until now.

Today, swimming’s professional ranks are much more welcoming in the era of the International Swimming League (ISL) — and for Nelson, the existence of the ISL and its short course meters racing format have been a godsend. In the 25-meter format, she can maximize her underwater abilities just as she did in short course yards racing during college. With the Cali Condors, the reigning league champions from 2020 and an early favorite to repeat in 2021, Nelson is a star. In the 2020 ISL final, she won the 200 backstroke, almost breaking the American record in the process, and she finished fourth in the 200 IM and 100 IM and fifth in the 50 butterfly.

“It’s really special to me because it kind of emulates college swimming but on a professional level,” Nelson said of the ISL. “And it allows somebody like me to continue pursuing a professional life in the sport that I otherwise might not have.”

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Beata Nelson during her college career at Wisconsin, after setting the American record in the 100-yard backstroke at the 2019 NCAA Championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The underwater kicks translate across all strokes in short course, so Nelson can basically do anything in the ISL. In Match #2, she won the 200 back, 100 IM and the 50 back skins event, and she also placed fourth in the 200 IM. She led off two medley relays with 100 back splits faster than the winning time in that event, but the 100 back and 100 IM are back-to-back in the ISL program, so she cannot swim both.

But outside of her typical backstroke and IM events, she put up a 52.33 split on the 400 free relay, tied for the third-fastest split of the race. OK, so add sprint freestyle to the list of events Nelson can handle.

In Match #4, she repeated her wins in the 200 back (while swimming almost three seconds faster) and 100 IM, she went even quicker on her 400 free relay split (52.28) while receiving a promotion to the Condors’ A-relay, and she placed second in the 50 fly. Then, instead of participating in butterfly skins, she swam the 400 IM.

Yes, the 400 IM, a race Nelson never once swam in college. Her last official 400-yard IM was in 2016, her senior year of high school, and she had not competed in the race for two years before that. What?

“I didn’t really know what to expect. I just left it up to (Cali Condors head coach) Jeff (Julian), and I said, ‘If you need me in the 200 fly or the 200 free, 100 IM, the 100 back,’ whatever they needed to put me in, I was willing to do it. I couldn’t guarantee what it would be like because I don’t really train for that event specifically. A lot of it just comes down to the coaches’ decision making and where they think I could help the team the best because I’m in good enough physical shape. I know I can do most events that they throw me in and perform at my best because I feel like I’m in pretty good shape,” Nelson said.

“Depending on what team we’re swimming against, depending on the points difference between teams after day one, they definitely wanted to make sure that we were getting some points from that 400 IM, and they thought I might have a good one in me.”

She did, as it turns out. Nelson swam a 4:31.97 to finish second, more than 5.5 seconds behind race winner Bailey Andison but more than two seconds clear of third place. In the early going of this ISL season, Nelson is the fourth-fastest performer in the league, even ahead of Olympic gold medalist Yui Ohashi.

So it’s fair to say that Nelson can do basically anything in short course, which makes her one of the most valuable swimmers in the ISL. But the league and her experience in two seasons has meant more than simply validating her status as a swimmer.


The “Special Connection”

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Beata Nelson — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

As originally assembled, the Cali Condors were a collection of many of America’s best swimmers (although the roster now includes more international faces), but several of its members have testified to a real team bond forming among the group, even without all the swimmers coming from the same hometown or training base. During the livestream of Match #4, Julian said, “We truly are a team. These guys love each other, even the ones who just joined this year, and you can feel it.”

Nelson has said she feels a “special connection” to her teammates, a bond which she said developed last season when the swimmers were basically confined to their Budapest hotel for the entire six-week ISL season. That bond shows when the team is racing but also away from the people. Shortly after she arrived in Naples, Italy, for the ISL regular season, Nelson celebrated her 23rd birthday with about 10 of her female Condors teammates, and at the restaurant, the other swimmers surprised her with a Nutella cake that Nelson had been eyeing at a nearby bakery. That touching gesture reinforced Nelson’s personal affection for her teammates.

“I think the camaraderie and the relationships I’ve created through the league are the most important to me, and that’s why it is so near to my heart because these people are like my family,” Nelson said. “We get together as a team, and everybody is doing it for the team. The best athletes, obviously, sometimes you worry when you put together a team of really elite athletes that people are going to be worried about themselves since they are so used to focusing on their own success and then the team gets lost, but it’s the complete opposite with our team.

“We have elite athletes all together and all working towards the same purpose, but it’s not forced.”

And the ISL experience itself is something so unique and different but also refreshing for veteran swimmers who can get bogged down by pressure and times over the course of long seasons. This year’s regular season, a five-week experience confined to Naples, has brought together elite athletes at different stages, most of them either coming off the Olympics or having just missed making the Olympics but few really pointing towards peak racing form. It has been a chance, Nelson said, “to get down to the simplest form of what this sport is about, and it’s just getting up and competing.”

She recalled something that one of her most accomplished of her Cali teammates, Caeleb Dressel, said after his first match. “He was like, ‘The first match, the first day, I had no expectations, had no idea what to expect, and I swim a lot better than I thought I would, and then going into the second day, I now knew where my body was at, and I started creating a little more pressure on myself to be at a certain place.’ And he was like, ‘No, I need to get back to that happy athlete that’s just there to have fun and compete.’ I think that just encompasses what that league is. It allows us to get back to that age group mindset to just have fun and enjoy the opportunity to compete.”


What’s Most Important in the Pro Swimming Experience

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Beata Nelson represents the Cali Condors in the ISL — Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Certainly, Nelson has loved her time competing in the ISL, and she plans to keep racing in the circuit as long as she is able, physically, emotionally and of course, financially. But at the same time, she still harbors ambitions of taking that leap to long course and translating her incredible short course speed to the big pool. Within the last year, she has been able to train long course regularly for the first time with the opening of Wisconsin’s new aquatic center, and she credits that work to what was the best long course meet of her career at Olympic Trials.

In Omaha this past June, Nelson qualified for her first Trials final in the 200 IM, where she finished seventh, and she was also a semifinalist in the 100 fly, 100 free and 200 back. She is not yet at the level of qualifying for a senior-level national team, but getting into her first final on that level in long course has only entrenched her belief that it’s within her potential.

“Having the experience I did, finaling at Olympic Trials, getting to swim at night, seeing the potential that I have, having my first experience actually swimming Olympic Trials and being in a heat that would allow me to make an Olympic team and also watching my teammates and friends make the Olympic team was really special, but it just makes me want that so much more,” Nelson said. “And I think I’ve got more in me.”

But at this stage of her swimming career, there’s more at stake for Nelson than the times, the places, the records and what not. It cannot be all about those standardized markers to extend a swimming life into one’s mid-20s and possibly beyond.

“In college, I was chasing after beating myself and reaching my fullest potential,” she said. “But when you get to this point in the sport, times and places happen when you’re genuinely having fun and create good relationships with people around you. What’s important to me is making long-lasting relationships with people in the sport, enjoying the people that are around me, make sure I’m surrounding myself with people who have a similar mindset to me.

“I think what’s most important to continue swimming at this level is the people, not the time or the place or the record. I think winning can happen and success can happen when you’re happy, and being happy is completely indicative of your environment and the people in it. I think that’s what’s most important to me at this point.”

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