You probably saw my interviews with Sharon Davis, even if it was just because you were watching Sharon and the close ups. Still for those that were listening I did actually say that I am retiring from swimming this year.
After what I considered a solid performance at the Olympics I showed “there was life in the old dog yet” and I swam my socks off in my speciality, the short course pool in Manchester last week. I broke my six-year-old British record in the 100m butterfly and swam the third fastest time in the world in the 200m butterfly. I was particularly proud of my 100m butterfly record as the original was set when I broke the world record at 51.02 and managed to dip under the 51 seconds to go 50.93.
Following those performances a number of people including my old and current coaches suggested that I re-consider retiring. Although this sounds funny, it’s because of performances like this that I do want to retire. I want to be remembered as a great swimmer and also to be able to choose to retire rather than “having” to retire or even worse, fade into retirement.
I’ve swum internationally for 10 years. My first major competition was the Commonwealth Games in Canada in 1994 where I won two bronze medals. My quest for an Olympic medal has spanned 3 Olympics and whilst it hurts that I’ve never won one I’ve had a fantastic career striving to get one. I know I have done everything possible throughout my career to be the best I can be.
I’ve always been a great short course swimmer because of my turns and over the years has been the arena that I’ve really excelled in. I broke the World records in the 100 and 200m butterfly and I’ve also won the world championship short course 4 times consecutively. That’s why I returned last week to race in Manchester and delayed my retirement until the end of the year.
Although none of us on the Olympic swim team wanted to swim National Championships, incorporating the world short course championship trials while the Olympics were on, Bill Sweetenham had put them there so we had to. If we’d remained in the village we’d have automatically been retired from the sport and I wanted to go for my fifth title at worlds.
This is another case of Bill Sweetenham and his hard line policies. Over the last four years Bill has been in place there have been a lot of changes and he has had the power to implement anything he wants. I’ve not agreed with everything but there has been an improvement in British swimming. Just last year we had our best ever results at a world championship ever.
Whilst some of this is because of Bill it was also to do with the swimmers and coaches too. You can’t win a world championship or Olympic medal in 3 or 4 years in swimming. Those that win medals set the goal, dream of it and train for it well before then. I was inspired to become a swimmer watching Adrian Moorhouse winning the 100m-breaststroke gold in the 1988 Olympics when I was 12.
The professionalism of British swimmers started in 1997 when lottery funding started. Funding has always been performance related and I think we should also look there for our recent successes. This enabled swimmers to set long term goals. Last year all the success of the swim team was attributed to Bill.
All that follow swimming and those involved in swimming actually expected a couple more than 2 medals. I thought that we would and could get four or five, especially after such a good world championships last year and also a fantastic Olympic trials. Now this hasn’t been achieved all the failure has been attributed to Bill. Again, some of it is, but some of it is due to the swimmers and coaches’ not getting things right too. That’s the problem; there is no middle ground.
There were some great performances at the Olympics. Both our bronze medallists, Steven Parry in the 200m butterfly and David Davis in the 1500m freestyle stood up and were counted among the greatest swimmers in the world. Stockport’s James Goddard came extremely close in the 200m backstroke too. Having the confusion over if you have won an Olympic medal or not must be one of the most emotional moments you can ever experience as an athlete. His fourth spot nearly became third when the winner was temporarily disqualified and then re-instated. He said that he wouldn’t want a default medal anyway and I’m sure he plans on getting one of his own in four years time.
I was happy with my performances in Athens because I know I swam my best. Going to Athens I was sure I was in great shape. I did my best time for 4 years at the trails. Whilst this moved me up the world rankings to top 12 in the world and I would need a massive improvement to move into the top 3. An individual medal was always going to be a long shot but the medley relay team was in with a great chance and my hope of clasping an Olympic medal really lay there. I needed to be the fastest 100m butterfly swimmer to be in the relay and that was my target. I swam my fastest ever heat swim to go through to the semi finals 12th fastest overall and the fastest Brit so I knew I had my relay spot. I didn’t get in to the final and ended up 15th. My focus moved quickly on to the relay the next day.
The medley relay qualified third fastest for the final, we smashed the British record and I swam a great leg, actually the fastest fly leg of all the swimmers that morning. I really wanted the relay to perform in the final, as I knew this would be my best and last chance of ever getting a medal. If the final we finished 8th. We never really got into the race next to the Americans. They led off with a world record in the 100m backstroke and finished smashing the world record. I gave my all and it wasn’t enough, what more could I do, that was it. No Olympic medal for me. My last opportunity to get one had come and gone, I was quite upset that night.
There were disappointments and each athlete that didn’t perform as expected has been made accountable by the media scrutiny of the Olympics. There’s no hiding place for an athlete when you are there. Each one had to get out of the pool and try and make sense of what happened to Sharon and all the other journalists in a split second. Not easy to do when you are hurting and when you’ve had a pre-Olympic media ban. I think it would have been good for Bill if he’d helped these guys out and spoken to the media about how things were going, after all he’d not banned himself from the media pre Olympics.
But if everybody got everything right all the time we’d all have Olympic gold medals. It takes more than one or two goes at anything to get it right and that’s the same for the Olympics. In hindsight I think there are a couple of things for Bill to look at:
At the Olympic trails in April we had 19 British records and the British swim team were swimming fantastic. Straight after, we went to France to race them at their Olympic trials and were miles better than them. We were even staying 1 hour away in Belgium and travelling 4 hours every day. Again, Bill “toughening us up” and preparing us for the Olympic environment. We had the toughest qualification of any international swim team and we did it, 36 swimmers making the team. I think we were ready. We were just ready too early. After that we had nowhere to go. The step forward from last years world championships had been taken but it was 4 months too early.
Had the qualifying criteria had been slightly easier, say top 16 in the world rather than top 12, then potential medallists would have been able to make the team that bit easier and still keep some focus on the actual Olympics. As it happens the French out swam us at the Olympics although we out swam them at their trials.
Creating a real positive attitude and not a fake one is something else that needs to be looked at. If you are constantly being told you need to be tougher and are always in an environment of hard line policies it doesn’t make you believe you are the best. You ask the question, “Why am I being pushed so hard?” and the answer is “So that I get better.” Which must also conclude that I’m currently not good enough. The best don’t need to be challenged every minute of every day in every possible way because they are the best anyway. They are the best because they challenge themselves.
Within the world of swimming a lot of people are wondering if Bill will carry on, some I’m sure hoping that he wont. He certainly isn’t the easiest character to get along with. There are a lot who consider the British Olympic team too have failed. In some ways I’d agree, we did fail, we had higher aspirations than two medals but that’s a good thing. We have also moved forward, may be not enough just yet but lessons have been learnt. Changing everything again now with someone new would put us back to step one again. I believe the real judgement should come in Beijing. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
At my first Olympics in Atlanta I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. So much adrenalin was running they flew by in a flash althoughthey turned out to be my most successful finishing 7th in the final of the 200m butterfly. There were the celebrity games and I was awe struck. Madonna and Bill Clinton came to watch the swimming. Mohamed Ali brought the 3000 seater dining hall to a stand still. It didn’t feel real.
In Sydney I put a lot of pressure on myself to win a medal and while the organisation of the Games was perfect I was disappointed with my own performance and felt empty. The atmosphere in Sydney I’m sure will never be re-created, it was full of expectation and electricity. The Australian crowd knew swimming; they knew they would dominate with Ian Thorpe. I desperately wanted to perform at my best in front of this crowd. I was 10th after the semi’s, two places short of the final and that prevented me from really enjoying the games.
Athens was my favourite Olympics and certainly the most enjoyable. There wasn’t the pressure of Sydney and I could control the adrenalin of Atlanta. As for all the media bashing the Greeks got I think they proved everybody wrong. The village was as good as Atlanta and Sydney if not a bit better as there was more room in the apartments. The venues I visited were fantastic, the fact the pool had no roof didn’t bother anybody, and the stadium looked great. The security was good but not imposing and the transport worked. Okay, some of the edges were a bit rough but you didn’t notice that unless you really looked and that had a bit of Greek charm about it anyway.
Team GB won 30 medals, the best tally since 1924 if you don’t count the boycotted games of 1984. While every sport has it’s part to play in this achievement the British Olympic Association banner under which they all participate is increasingly instrumental in the overall success. With extremely professional staff working on every logistical issue all the athlete has to do is think about performance. Nine golds were won, the whole swim team watched Mathew Pinent’s, Kelly Holmes’ progress in the 1500m after the 800m was all anybody was talking about and then the men won the 4×100 relay. Swimming played it’s part this time with 2 to add to that tally. There is so much going on day by day when you are there it’s impossible to keep up with it all. In this day and age it’s funny how word of mouth is the best technology in an Olympic village. Trust me the live BBC feed in to your house is a luxury!
Just before I left Athens I asked Ada Kok a dutch lady who won the 200m butterfly at the 1968 Olympic games how many Olympics she had been to and how Athens compared. She said ” I’ve been to ten Olympics and I don’t think you should compare one to another, each has it’s own identity”. I think she’s right and the Athens Olympics was a great Greek Olympics and I’m sure the next ones will be great Chinese and hopefully British Olympics!