Throughout my career, right from the early days, I’d never thought I’d go to one Olympics, so going to three was for me a huge achievement, and to finish at a home Olympics – why not? If I’m brutally honest, I just made a team, I was hanging on, so there was no better way for me to go out than going to a third Games and it being in London
But even if hadn’t have made the team for London, that would have definitely been it. I do think maybe I could have done one more year, but it would have been a case of getting to Barcelona in 2013 almost for the sake of going to another World Championships. I do appreciate that competing for your country is a huge honour, but for me it wasn’t the way I wanted to go out. There was a huge question mark over whether I would make the team, and how I would perform, so I wanted to go out on my own terms and not have someone come along and say “your days are numbered, You need to start thinking about something else.”
I remember touching the wall in London and going to bed that night and waking up and just thinking, what purpose have I got now? What’s my desire? What’s my goal in life? And they were all gone. It is an emotional time and if you don’t have a support network around you it can be a very, very lonely time. For those three months after London, I wanted to enjoy a home Olympics and all the hype that was still continuing on from the Games, but ultimately you have this dark cloud over you as you don’t know what you’re going to do next.
I did have help from a lifestyle management consultant at Loughborough. The key message was that, as an athlete, you’ve got huge dedication and you’re motivated to be the best in the world; that’s great, and it is a massive skill, but what else are you interested in? I think I was in a minority at the time as for two three years before 2012, I had been thinking about what was going to happen after swimming, even though I didn’t have a clear direction of where I was going to go. I had a grown a network of people that I could at least touch base with afterwards; that’s something I think is hugely important. You go out into the big wide world and the only connections you have are swimming and you might stay in swimming, you might not. For me it was about growing that network of people that could actually help post-swimming, people that I could actually turn to if needs be.
I always thought that I wanted to go into coaching after I finished swimming and I had an opportunity with Melanie Marshall at the City of Derby. It was great to go back to the club where it all started for me, especially being very close to Mel, having swum with her and kept in touch over the four years before London. Alongside doing that and other things, an opportunity at Derbyshire Cricket Club came to me and I took it, but I soon realised after five days that working in an office selling advertising boards was not what I wanted to do. And even though the coaching side was great ultimately when it came down to it, I didn’t want to be a coach either.
It was difficult, I was very fortunate to have people around me who were giving me opportunities and it was also quite exciting but I didn’t know what I was going to do. It wasn’t through a lack of options and I think if you don’t have the options it can be hugely, hugely worrying because as a swimmer you’re in this comfort zone, you’re in this bubble that people are all around you, and people who are your best friends want to get the best out of you. They ask you 24/7 how they can help, how they can make you the best athlete in the world, and that’s gone completely overnight, whipped away from you. I do think that’s one thing that sports and governing bodies do quite badly, they remove every network away from you and you don’t have anybody to fall back on. Yes in some cases or if you are funded you have a three month period of assistance after you finish, but people don’t know what they want to do after three months. I think when you look at other sportsmen and women who get into difficulties, or who get depression, it didn’t happen in those first three months, it was in the next 12 months or 24 months that they really got into a dark place and that’s because they hadn’t got that support network around them.
So early on in my retirement I’d done the things I didn’t want to do and I’m really grateful that I had the people taking me on to do those things, but ultimately they were things I didn’t want to do. So it was about finding out what it was that I did want to do and I was very fortunate in 2009 there was a connection with the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust and I became an athlete mentor for them and that was the transition I took after London. I did that for a couple of years, helping disadvantaged, disengaged young people, trying to transition them away from whatever they were doing negatively in their lives to turn it around to a positive and try and better themselves, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But I soon realised that more athletes were coming, more athletes were transitioning out of their sport, and that they wanted this kind of work.
Then I had an opportunity to work for Finis and I didn’t want it! I was happy with what I was doing but I had a few interviews and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Now I love it and I would say to everybody, I’m so passionate about swimming and I’m so connected to swimming now without having to get wet! It’s a perfect scenario.
Get more on retirement and the process of transition with more swimmers’ stories and a special edition of the podcast in our retirement special