I think the immediate feeling when I touched the wall at the Olympic trials was “that’s it game over, that’s the end”. The initial reaction to a disappointment like that is “I’m not doing that ever again”, because the feeling was horrible. I didn’t want to go through that again, through that stress, through that pressure, through that disappointment. And then a little bit of time went by and I realised that my initial reaction was probably an overreaction and I needed take a bit more time to decide what I was going to do next.
Towards the end of my career I really wasn’t enjoying swimming as much as I had because I wasn’t racing well and it was making everything more stressful and less enjoyable. I put so much work in and that work was supposed to be full of reward at the end. I was still working as hard as I ever had done, doing everything right and for some reason my body wasn’t able to perform as well as it had done, I still didn’t really know why. I had suggestions that it was all in my head which left me confused because I’d been able to handle it mentally for the rest of my career. I missed been the younger me and being more excited about my sport.
I did get back in the water for a little bit, but again I was struggling and was really thinking to myself, do I still want to do this? Is there any point? I did everything I could leading up to the trials, but it didn’t go the way I wanted. I was just thinking I’d had my time, I’d done a lot already, I was just being greedy wanting more. So about six months later I decided the time was right and I should get on with life.
It was really hard at first. Even while I was deciding it was still hard. I think for a couple of months I’d probably be crying most nights, I didn’t even know what was wrong. I just wanted to cry and I guess maybe that was just a process I was going through to adjust. The kind of process that swimmers go through, your body adjusting, is kind of a loss. This has been such a big thing for your whole life and then all of a sudden it’s gone.
So I’d be crying and I didn’t know why I was crying. If you’re grieving over something you’ve lost like a person, you’re very upset, you miss that person. With swimming it was almost the same. Even though I’d decided this was the best thing to do, to move on, I was still upset about it. It was a very, very difficult period of my life. But you don’t prepare for it, no one prepares you for it and to be honest, I don’t know how you can prepare for it.
I’d always been a little bit unsure of what I wanted to do. I went to university in Florida, but I came back after two years, and I never knew what I wanted to do with education. I just knew I wanted to swim; swimming was always my main thing. I think when it was coming towards the end of my career that made it a little bit more stressful, because I just had swimming. I had always just thought it’s OK, I’ll swim and then when that’s done I’ll go on to something else. It was just a grey area, what was going to happen next.
But about a year before I’d stopped swimming, I did start working on the SwimPath business that I’m doing now. So I had that in the background but wasn’t sure what it was going to lead to, and I was definitely unsure what was going to happen. But now it’s going well and I am really enjoying giving something back to the sport and to younger swimmers
There definitely could have been more support, maybe from retired athletes who’ve been through it before or other mentors, even just someone to talk to. I guess while you’re competing in swimming, you also don’t prepare for retirement, because you train to race and to be the best and you’re not thinking about quitting. With hindsight I think it would have been better if I had focused maybe a little bit more on education and planned a bit more so when I stopped swimming I had an idea what I was going to go into, but I was a little bit lost in the grey area, not knowing where I was going to go. In the moment I was very comfortable just to swim, especially when I was on funding and things were going really well. Training is full on so you just want to rest as much as you can and I didn’t really have a massive interest in something else that I wanted to do.
I’m enjoying what I’m doing now, it’s good keeping involved in swimming although it is sometimes hard watching and seeing people competing at the big competitions; you miss that, you miss that buzz. It’s difficult to get the same excitement in day to day life; working so hard towards something and doing a best time – nothing beats that feeling. I do miss being directly involved but I am now getting to use my experience and my expertise in other ways.
I would advise younger swimmers to just have something else, if it’s art or something different, any little interest, just to do something outside of swimming to release the pressure and just have less time thinking about it or worrying about how you feel in training. I think it’s healthy to not be thinking about swimming all the time.
Jemma is one of the founders of by Swimpath – Developing today, the swimmers of tomorrow
Get more on retirement and the process of transition with more swimmers’ stories and a special edition of the podcast in our retirement special