As he touched the wall at the end of the dogfight that was the 200m freestyle at British trials, the results on the board were clear for Robbie Renwick. He’d confirmed his place in Rio as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay and as such he would be on the plane to the Olympics for the third time. Something to be proud of one would think, a view he is only too happy to confirm. “It’s a huge honour to be representing GB again for my third Olympic games, everyone says number three is always really, really special.”
But it wasn’t all plain sailing – after a 2014 season that didn’t go entirely to plan Renwick knew he had to shake things up to ensure he could add that third Games to his swimming CV. “After the Commonwealth Games in 2014, my swimming was maybe headed in the wrong direction” he says now. “But I’ve managed to change that around, changed coach, moved to Stirling and now got a great set up there at the university. Training has been going well, and my performances have turned around and been solid. I’m not taking anything for granted but I’m looking forward to the summer, that’s for sure.”
One of the reasons he’s looking forward to the summer is the potential in the 4x200m freestyle team, in which Renwick was a World Champion in 2015, filling a hole in the trophy cabinet and adding a sense of accomplishment. “First feeling I had after the world championships, after winning that gold was just… thank God I’ve got something to show for my swimming career!” he recalls. “At the Olympics I came sixth individually, kind of at the back. No one cares, you want an international medal. So to get that last summer was kind of a relief more than anything. If I were to walk away from the sport now I would have something to show, I’m proud of that. But now I want more, I want to do that again, it doesn’t mean I’m taking my foot off the gas.”
Keeping the pedal to the floor is harder the further you go into your swimming career and the decision was taken in tandem with his move to Stirling to focus more on that relay and perhaps lessen the emphasis on his individual swims – “I’m very much focusing on the relays now, that’s where I see the opportunity in the more senior stages of my swimming career” – and the experience of many international finals will undoubtedly help his relay teammates, who apart from Ieuan Lloyd will all be making their Olympic debuts.
Principally he hopes his team treats it like any other meet. “Just because it’s the Olympic Games, it doesn’t really make it any more special when you’re in the thick of it” is his matter-of-fact view. “You’re racing the same guys, same coaches, same teammates, it all feels very similar.
“I guess for me it’s more the experience throughout the years, kind of I know what’s going to happen. Already in my head I have a rough idea of how the day is going to play out.”
One thing that could throw that idea awry is the unusual timetable in Rio, with heats at midday and finals shifted from their usual slot to start at 10pm as a sop to US broadcaster NBC. It’s a subject that the British team have been avoiding talking about in an effort to play down its significance, but for those who were at the Games in 2008, they already have experience of the timetable being turned on its head to fall back on. “I remember those morning finals in Beijing. I mean, this doesn’t seem as bad as Beijing, that’s for sure” says Renwick. “But hey, that’s what athletes do, you adapt to any sort of situation and it’s out of our control. At the end of the day it’s only pushed back a few more hours but that’s fine because we’ll move our clocks to the right a bit more and I’m sure we’ll be fine. For me it’s only the 4×200 so for one night… if it goes well I don’t think I’ll be sleeping that night at all!”
That quip hides a determination that he will do all he can to help the 4×200 men deliver something special in the summer – it’s a race that he sees a huge chance in.
“The potential for that race is quite big but we’re not taking anything for granted. Just because we were world champions last year, doesn’t mean we’re getting an Olympic medal for free. We’re certainly hoping to be in the mix, that’s for sure.” But crucially he realises that it can’t be all about James Guy, the rest of the team also needs to step forward in the heat of battle.
“We do kind of encourage everyone to swim four individual races and to swim smart most importantly, not going out too fast and bringing it home hard” he observes. “That’s probably the most important thing but when we’ve got such talent like James Guy in our team, we need to let James do his thing, but we need to get James in the best position possible to do that.
“We were world champions last year and what a great race that was and having Jimmy on the anchor leg it was just fantastic but coming into this summer we don’t want to put all that pressure on him, you know. Us other three boys, we want to swim spectacular splits as well.”
That’s a clue that Guy may be back on his favoured anchor leg, having swum second at the European championships, but does Renwick know something we don’t about the tactics? “Absolutely not! No one knows anything about the order, we literally find out that morning or the night before. Our relay coach is Jol Finck, a hugely smart guy who knows what he’s doing; the decision is on him and whatever he chooses is going to be the right decision.”
Assuming he secures his place in the final quartet, an Olympic medal would be a fitting finale to a fine career but there is work still to be done. “It’s definitely it’s very exciting times for us, but every year the slate is wiped clean so it doesn’t matter if you’re world champion, we’re not taking anything for granted. We have two new boys on the 4×200 team so the team dynamic is going to be totally different but we will bring it when it counts.”