Our male swimmer of the year for 2017 gives his thoughts on a year of upheaval but also one of great success.
Lane 6. 24th July 2017, and Ben Proud finds himself in the final of the 50m butterfly at the world swimming championships, the chance to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition beckoning. “100 percent, I believed I could win” says Proud now looking back on that moment. “but I also knew five other people could have won.“
22.75 seconds later, Proud’s fingertips hit the timing pad first and he’s a world champion; mission accomplished. “Going into the World Championships, I saw it as two ways, I either won or I didn’t win. It’s not like coming second or coming third wouldn’t be great, but it’s not really what I wanted.” He says, speaking at the HQ of his sponsors Adidas. “I really believed I could have won, I know that my finish was perfect and it was also my fastest time, so I was really happy with the way things went.”
That attitude talks to a confidence that is now coursing through Proud’s veins, but which has been an area in need of development in the past. Back before Rio, he acknowledged that he perhaps wasn’t one of the more outgoing of the sprinters, but a fourth placed Olympic finish perhaps made him believe he belonged amongst the big men of the pool, even if his confidence is of the quiet kind.
“I think it always comes down to experience” he says. “I mean, four years ago, I lacked a lot of confidence. I was between the world record holder and the world champion and times like that really give you a lot to learn. I think it was this year especially, when I got to world championships, I found a unique way that works for me when it comes to racing. I can go into the competition, you know, I’m not slapping my chest to like trying to intimidate others, but I found what works for me and that’s to be a bit more passive and kind of block out the crowds. I think it’s the experience of the past four years has really led me to where I am now.”
That new mindset combined with a change in training base in preparation for Budapest, with long term mentor Jon Rudd moving on from their Plymouth training base, and Proud looking for a new home. That proved to be an easy decision.
“When Jon initially said he was leaving, it was a surprise but it just so happens coincidentally about the same time James Gibson announced he was working with his new program. So, it probably took me a week or so to decide that Turkey was where I wanted to go to train with James” explains Proud. “And you know, it wasn’t that big a change; I’ve worked with James for four seasons, whenever I’ve been on British competitions I’d be working with him, so it actually made it very, very convenient to make that shift from Jon to James. I think there were all the other options out there but really as soon as I saw James’ program I was kind of fixed on that.”
But moving from what was essentially a club programme to a fully elite, professional group must have seen a change in emphasis. “It could have been quite a big drastic change but I think as I went through the five years in Plymouth, it really did evolve and Jon really did kind of create more of a professional environment even though it was still a club program.”
“So, things got more and more professional to a point where last year it was very, very professional, all the strength and conditioning, the physiotherapist whenever I needed it and you know, the pool time, it was good”
But things inevitably did change despite the professionalism on show in Plymouth. “With the change, it’s kind of opened up a whole new world of training for me. So being able to choose any time you want to train, what you want to do, working one on one with everyone, the physios, the S and C coaches, it really does open up a whole new window of training. And the first year it went really well but as things are still evolving, as in my unique training program, so I think over the next three years we’ll be able to find something quite special.”
Back to Budapest where something special had already happened in the Duna Arena with that 50 fly gold, a result which must have taken off the pressure heading into the blue riband event – the 50 freestyle, where Proud would surely be swimming more freely?
“Yes,” he smiles ruefully “and a bit too freely! In the heats of the 50 free, I did feel very, very relaxed and after winning the 50 fly, which had been a massive dream I’ve been chasing for six years, it took probably two or three days for me to come back around and really home in on the 50 freestyle.
“So, in the first round I came close to missing on the semi-final, which was a bit of a slap in the face, and made me wake up a bit; ‘remember that we’ve got another job to do’. I do think if the freestyle was first, I would have gone about it differently, I think I would have been a bit hungrier and I think I could have probably gone faster.”
But the rounds were safely negotiated, and Proud was back in the cauldron again, this time in lane 3 for the final. The race was back on, but Proud had no idea where he was in the battle for the wall. “I block out all the other swimmers and just do it for myself. I dove in and did my race as best I could at that time and, I’m very grateful to be on the top end of the spectrum because if I’d messed up slightly, I would’ve come 5th. So, it’s good to get a bronze medal, it was a good feeling, and a relief.”
But despite the hardware, there was no doubting who the star of the race was with Caeleb Dressel taking the field apart over the opening metres. Proud has been known for his fast starting, but now there’s a new king in town, and an area of renewed focus for Proud in the coming season; although it has always been on the drawing board it had perhaps been moved to a lower priority.
“It was a conversation I had with James in February of this year, we both said I can improve my start but we also said is there a need to right now? After all, I put in very good start and it was one of the top starts in the semi-final, so we saw no need to really put that much energy into starts this year and instead put it on different things, different aspects of my race, more of the back end” he says, before adding a touch of hindsight to the mix. “But now that someone has come along and completely obliterated me in the start, it does add that extra motivation to kind of get back to it and I’ve got a very, very clear image in my head of how I’m going to go about changing my start and how we’re going to try catch up with Caeleb. But it’s not every year you get someone like Caeleb coming along, so even if I’d never beat him at 50 metres, just to get a little bit closer, that’s all I want.”
As for his plans now, the Commonwealth Games loom, with two titles to defend, before a home European Championships, but aside from those, Proud is keeping tight lipped about his next goals.
“My next goal is probably quite secretive, I never go about showing what the angle is but I’ve found a new motivation after winning the 50 fly. In terms of what my next goals were, how I was going to react, whether or not I want to keep with the 50 fly or if I was going to retire, everything was just up in the air. But after some time of thinking about it I’ve kind of found out what I really want and I’ve found that motivation. The next dream is quite clear and I’m ready to go back and work with James and see how we can work together over the next three years to hopefully achieve something quite exciting.”
Ben Proud is sponsored by Adidas. Banner image courtesy Adidas Swim