The biggest thing in Elin Lindström’s life was swimming. She swam competitively in high school and college before starting her coaching career, which demanded 80 or 90 hours of her time each week during peak season. The pool was her happy place, but also her shield.
Lindström knew she was transgender from the time she was 10 or 11 years old, but didn’t know how to describe it. Bereft of visible trans role models, she tried to ignore her inclinations, and just focus on her breast stroke.
She held off on transitioning for years, because she convinced herself it just wouldn’t work.
“Of all the sports, swimming was definitely one you can’t really even think about transitioning, because your body is out there constantly,” she told me on the phone.
But now, Lindström is getting back in the pool, and this time as her true self. Her old college teammates have been some of her biggest backers.
Growing up in Minnesota, Lindström originally gravitated towards swimming because her doctor (wrongly) told her it would be less stressful on her knees than wrestling. She quickly fell in love with the sport, partially because she was really good at it.
Lindström swam in Grand Prix-level competitions and at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts school located about 69 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The guys on the team were friendly, and Lindström, 42, has remained close with them.
Though Lindström studied science in school, her love remained swimming. She knew immediately she wanted to get into coaching.
“Swimming was just something that I was never so good at it that it came natural to me, so I always had to be paying attention to how to be better,” she said. “As a coach, I always felt like I could see those things for other people, and communicate it well to them.”
Lindström’s nascent coaching career took her all the way to California, where she built up a club team all the way to a championship level.
Then she took her first big risk, and moved across the Atlantic. In 2011, one of Lindström’s friends offered her the opportunity to teach physical education in Sweden, and on a whim, she accepted.
She says moving to Sweden helped her further understand her identity.
“I’m not going to say it’s the liberal paradise that some people in America paint it as, of people just running around doing anything they want” she said. “But at the same time, it was a safer place to at least explore my options.”
Nowadays, Lindström is settled in Scandinavia, and teaches middle school science. She loves her work, and feels blessed to be in her spot.
Lindström has also come out to everybody in her life: parents, colleagues, and yes, old teammates. She told her parents right before the new year, and her fellow teachers on the last day before summer vacation.
She felt instantly validated when another teacher walked into one of her department meetings, and a colleague remarked they “were all girls.”
“It was the most validating moment at work you could ever have,” Lindström said. “I might be the only person in our school who feels like 2020 is one of the best years in recent memory — just because of my own situation.”
While Lindström was fairly certain how the announcement would go over at work, she was a little less sure about her old swimming friends. As a college student, she couldn’t have imagined coming out as trans.
But feelings change over time. Lindström has evolved a lot over the last two decades. Her teammates have as well.
“I think sometimes we forget that all the people we were with around that age continued to grow for the next years of their life, too,” she said. “They’re still teammates now, but in a completely different part of my life.”
The support doesn't stop with old teammates. Lindström’s swimmers have embraced her, too.
“My own swimmers have been some of my most amazing supporters,” she said. “These people are younger than you and you figure, oh, I’m the one in the leadership role. And some of them have written some of the most supportive things, or called me and said some of the most supportive things.”
In recent years, Lindström has become an avid runner, and enjoys the fact she can do it anywhere. But her desire to swim is coming back.
After avoiding the water for years, Lindström jumped into a pool on a trip to the west coast of Sweden last year at the behest of a friend. She was back.
“I was a little nervous, but I jumped in and the water was still the water,” she said.
While quarantine has impeded her training regimen, Lindström has her eyes set on competing at the Masters World Championship in 2022. It would be her third trip to the competition, but first one in the women’s division.
She’s prepared for anything that may come her way — and has her community behind her.
“I’m sure I’ll get some looks then, but I’m not just going to sit on my couch for the rest of my life, either,” Lindström said. “We’ve got to go out, we’ve got to live our lives.”
Follow Elin Lindström on Twitter, @ElinNilsson78.