It’s easy to put professional athletes on a pedestal and explain their success as natural talent but Erika Ackerlund will be the first person to tell you that, despite racing professional triathlon, she is “playing catch up” when it comes to swimming.
Ackerlund started triathlon as a university student and, without a competitive triathlon or swimming background like many other triathletes at her level, she has faced a steep learning curve in the water. “I’m still learning what is proper freestyle technique for myself,” she says. “I only swam so much in high school and we had a new coach every year. There wasn’t a consistent person in the past to teach me the foundations.” Through the national team, Ackerlund has been working with a swim coach in Arizona for the past two years, which, she says, “Has helped a lot.”
“Learning the correct technique and teaching myself to go speeds I don’t already know how to do—it’s things like that I’m still playing catch up on,” Ackerlund says. She doesn’t just rely on coaching to improve, however, Ackerlund is hungry for knowledge wherever she can get it. “I ask a lot of questions to athletes who have been racing for a while,” she explains. “I watch what they do and learn from them, particularly at races. I can find out how do they normally do something, how do they train, do race day, a lot of the [USA] team have been nice and have shown me the ropes,” she says.
Still, it isn’t always easy to feel behind, Ackerlund admits. “Sometimes I’ll hear a swim workout in practice and I can get down on myself or frustrated because I have never done that in my life and they do it in practice,” she says, referencing speeds or times she has yet to achieve. Whenever she is down on herself, “I always just bring it back to that it’s race day that matters,” Ackerlund says. “The race is what matters. I know what my race results are and I’m proud of them. It’s how you finish in the race, not a training PR.”