I’d been injured for a really long time before I actually retired but I always hoped that I would somehow find a way to get better and get back to where I was in time just to do the Olympic trials in 2012. That was not even really with a hope of making the team, I just wanted to know that was going to be my end point and it would have felt to me like going out on my own terms.
I injured my hip, I think, in 2009 and I had a year and a half of really not be able to train properly, not knowing what was wrong with it, and having loads of tests. No one seemed able to work out what was wrong and there were all sorts of joyful things like being told it was all in my head, when actually I had torn the cartilage in my hip joint and I had to have surgery just after the 2010 Commonwealth Games to fix it. I remember going back to training after that and trying really hard but I’d been carrying this injury for so long that I’d compensated in all sorts of ways and it became more of a more than just a question of fixing the actual injury because I’d made all sorts of other things wrong along the way. There came a point when I just realised that however hard I tried, it wasn’t going to get better. I remember saying to my coach Bill Furniss that I was going to go home for a bit and then saying to him I didn’t think I’d come back, and I think we both knew the outcome at that point.
The hard thing was knowing that I hadn’t achieved everything that I wanted to achieve, but then at the same time, 2012 was always going to be it. I knew it was about time I got on and did something else, and I wanted to do something else, because I finished university in 2010 and I just swam. I was just swimming and I knew that it wasn’t enough for me and I was not enjoying being a full time athlete; I know it works so well for some people but I was just extra bored and obsessive. It just wasn’t a way of doing things that made me happy. So I knew that the end point was 2012 whatever happened.
To be honest the end of my career was a total nightmare. I can’t imagine the highs that someone who’s made the Olympics or won an Olympic medal have had, but when you compare the highs and the lows of sport the difference is so huge and I went quite quickly from swimming the best I’d ever swum to swimming so badly, just not being able to do anything right. That being the case I was really really proud of myself to make the Commonwealth Games team carrying an injury. I went to that meet knowing that it was going to be difficult to get my spot on the relay and to be honest slightly hiding the fact that I had quite a bad injury and I was just doing my best with it; I couldn’t even really dive! But I was still proud of myself to have got there and I was going to give everything.
Then the night before what, in hindsight, probably would have been my last race, I got really terrible food poisoning and ended up just not swimming at all. That was my chance to stay on funding and I’d been living for that moment to get a bit of a high and hopefully swim well and then that was taken away. I know a lot of people experienced similar illnesses, but it was my one shot and I couldn’t even make it out of my room to give myself a chance to go out in a good way. It’s just one of those things, it’s no one’s fault, it’s just a lot of unfortunate circumstances all coming into play at the same time. But you just feel like you’re desperately trying to get back and trying to keep going, doing everything you can, and there are just roadblocks in the way. There are times when you just don’t need something to come and push you down or to feel like it’s knocking you back, and it just felt like all that was happening again and again and again.
I suppose the thing that a lot of people struggle with is “what am I without this?” and “what’s special about me if I don’t have this thing that’s always been a bit different from other people?” I definitely did worry about that even though I was never one of the very top swimmers. It was something that crossed my mind because it’s something that makes you stand out, it’s something that makes you a bit interesting. It was quite a weird time and I felt for a little while I didn’t really know what I was about. Thankfully you have to work it out quite quickly.
In terms of the routine, I didn’t miss that too much but I made myself a new routine with work and I still exercise loads; I couldn’t ever let go of that because I just think it’s really important to be physically tired everyday not just mentally tired. There’s so much you get from swimming, you get the satisfaction of feeling like you’ve done something well and knowing you’ve done something well and that is quite difficult to replicate in the real world.
I still miss having such a measurable success, when you know just by looking at the clock whether you’re doing a good job or not, and you’re suddenly in the real world and there’s no clock to measure yourself by, and you’re not six anymore, people don’t give you a sticker if you’re doing well or tell you what a great job you’re doing all the time. That’s initially quite weird, quite strange. Something else that’s been quite interesting, has been the fact that you work out quite quickly who your real swimming friends are. There are a lot of people who you get on with while in swimming, but it’s swimming that keeps you together and you sometimes realise that you have more in common maybe than you knew or less in common than you thought. It’s been really nice finding the really real friendships that I got from swimming
Get more on retirement and the process of transition with more swimmers’ stories and a special edition of the podcast in our retirement special