A deep dive with Anna Kalandadze

The fourth-year distance swimmer discusses swimming 11,000 yards a day, competing at the NCAA Championships, learning to dive from watching Michael Phelps, her interest in coral reef restoration, and getting circled by a shark.

Anna Kalandadze, wearing her swim uniform, stands on the bleachers near the Pottruck Center pool.

Swimming is Anna Kalandadze’s escape. As soon as she enters the water, she says her mind blanks out everything else and she is able to just enjoy herself and cast out all worries, troubles, and concerns.

“It makes me feel calm,” she says.

A fourth-year student on the women’s swimming and diving team, Kalandadze recently put a bow on her outstanding collegiate swimming career. She is a four-time Ivy League champion, a two-time All-American, and she qualified for the NCAA Championships in each of her four seasons. This past season, she finished fourth in the country in the 1,650-yard freestyle (the mile) and broke a 15-year-old Ivy League record with a time of 15:47.86.

Kalandadze, a biology major in the School of Arts & Sciences from Ardmore, Pennsylvania, says her teammates and her coach, Mike Schnur, were instrumental in the tremendous success she achieved while donning the Red & Blue.

Anna Kalandadze holds her head above the water while wearing her swim cap.

After a trying first-year season at the University of California, Berkeley, Kalandadze says she was on the verge of giving up the sport. When she transferred to Penn, she agreed to compete on the swimming and diving team, but she says she was not sure if it was something she really wanted to do.

Schnur and her teammates, says Kalandadze, helped her fall back in love with the sport.

“I’m super grateful for my teammates here and my coach,” she says. “They really helped me get through it and work through all my mental trauma, which there was a lot of. I would not be anywhere near as good as I am today if I hadn’t come to Penn and met them, so it’s definitely very rewarding to be where I am. But it wasn’t just me.”

Penn Today sat down with Kalandadze, who is gearing up for the Olympic Trials, to discuss swimming 11,000 yards a day, competing at the NCAA Championships, her interest in coral restoration, and getting circled by a shark.

Anna Kalandadze takes a breath while swimming during a meet.
Image: Penn Athletics

When did you begin swimming? My mom put me in general safety swim lessons when I was around 4. The woman who was teaching me told me that I have natural talent and told my mom to sign me up for a real team. That’s where it started 18 years ago.

What is the training schedule like for swimmers? As part of the distance group, we swim six days a week. Three of those, we do doubles, so we swim twice a day. We run three times a week for about 30 minutes. We don’t do lifting in the distance group. Our coach doesn’t believe that we need to have huge giant swimmer muscles; we need more of an endurance type of body. We do at least 11,000 yards a day in the peak of training. It’s tiring.

Is controlling your breathing an important aspect of swimming, or trying to breathe as little as possible? That’s not so much for distance swimming; that’s for the really short races, like a 50, which is just there and back. For us, it’s really important to get your air, so most distance swimmers breathe every two or three strokes so that you have enough oxygen to keep you going for 15-plus minutes.

How was it competing at the NCAA Championships? It was a lot of fun. I had another teammate there with me, her name is Anna Moehn. We were in the same exact events. I think it’s a lot more fun competing at Nationals when there’s somebody there with you that you’re close with. It kind of gives it more of a sense that you’re doing it for the team and not just for yourself. I thought that was pretty special. It was sad, too. It was my last one.

Anna Kalandadze takes a breath while swimming during a race.
Image: Penn Athletics

Were there swimmers who you looked up to in your youth? I looked up to Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. I don’t remember this, but my mom always tells me this story about how I taught myself how to dive in a pool by watching Michael Phelps in the Olympics. And Katie Ledecky is just insane. As a female distance swimmer, she’s exactly what I want to be.

You swim the 500, which is on the shorter side of distance swimming, and also the mile, which obviously not short. Do you have a different approach or mindset when swimming the 500 vs. the mile? Do you have to pace yourself more since you’re going to be swimming for 15 minutes straight? Yes. We work on that a lot at practice. There are different paces for the different distances that we swim. Obviously the 500 is shorter so you have to swim faster. And then there are other factors like when to bring your legs in and how long to kick off of every wall. All that little stuff changes based on how long you’re swimming.

What does your body feel like after swimming the mile? If I did really well, I don’t feel any pain at all, but if I know that I’m having a bad race, it will hurt a lot all over afterwards. I’m sure it hurts either way, but when you do well, you don’t really feel it.

Anna Kalandadze, wearing her Penn swim cap, prepares herself to swim before a race.
Image: Penn Athletics

Last summer, you competed for the United States in the World University Games in China, where you finished eighth in the mile. How was the experience? It was really awesome. It was my first international meet representing the U.S. and I thought it was a really special experience because it was a different type of year. There wasn’t like a trials that was held to qualify for that meet; instead, they reached out to swimmers and asked us to participate on the team. I think that gave a lot of people an opportunity that wouldn’t have made it if there was a competition to make it—probably myself included. I thought it was really cool to be part of a team where we all had the exact same goal and we were doing it because we loved swimming and just wanted to do our best and represent the country.

You are a biology major and environmental science minor. Why did you choose to major in biology? Both my parents are biologists and it’s just something I grew up around. Hearing them talk about it, I think it just kind of stuck in my brain. Now it’s the only thing that interests me.

Is there any particular aspect of biology you find most interesting? I would love to be a marine biologist. It’s a very niche field to get into, but I’m trying my best. I would want to work with coral ecology and restoration and protection.

Anna Kalandadze holds up her fourth-place NCAA trophy after the NCAA Championships.
Image: Penn Athletics

Why is that something you’re passionate about? It’s really important for humanity as a whole. They provide protection for coastlines and about half the world’s population is dependent on coral reef for fishing and food and tourism, so I think it’s super important to protect them. And a lot of modern medicine comes from discoveries made on coral reefs.

You are certified as an advanced open water scuba diver. How did you get involved in scuba diving? In high school, for my senior project, I did a volunteer trip in Belize doing coral reef restoration, and as part of that, we got scuba certified so we could go down to where the corals were. I fell in love with it from there and decided to certify further. The advanced open water certification gets me down to 100 feet below the surface.

What sort of waters have you dove in? I’ve dove in a lot of places. Australia, French Polynesia, the Caribbean, the Galapagos. Hopefully more to come.

What has been your most memorable dive? I got to dive with a manta ray in Bora Bora. They’re huge. You know that one from ‘Finding Nemo’ that takes all the fish to school?

Have you ever had any dangerous marine life encounters? I got circled by a shark once, but as long as you relax and don’t freak out, you’ll be fine. Sharks don’t want to bite you, they’re just curious as to what you are.

A collage of Anna Kalandadze swimming in the pool at the Pottruck Center.