I STARTED SWIMMING BECAUSE…
I was always good at swimming and I have 2 brothers so, growing up, our house was quite competitive. It was always a fun challenge to beat them so I fell into it naturally. Like most swimmers, I’m great in water but not so much on land. My hand-eye co-ordination, for example, is terrible so, as much as I enjoy playing other sports, I could never compete professionally.
‘The wand chooses the wizard Mr Potter. It’s not always clear why but in this case…’ Ollivander, Harry Potter
BACKSTROKE WASN’T ON MY HOT LIST
All young swimmers are encouraged to try all stokes but I never wanted to specialise in the backstroke. Having watched Michael Phelps swimming the butterfly in the Olympics, I thought ‘That looks great. That’s definitely for me.’ Then, at one of my first junior swim meets with Team GB, I got out of the pool and one of the coaches said ‘Simmonds, when you swim butterfly, you undulate more than a dying worm.’ It’s funny now - in fairness I’m quite hypermobile so I wiggle a lot - but, at the time, I was horrified. That was my butterfly dream over. As you mature, the stroke chooses you; you don’t choose it. I was always better at backstroke.
‘I can’t ever remember not being able to swim. I started training from a very early age - I was 6 - and it was always very natural to me. I always had an affinity with the water so I loved doing it.’
THE TEAM SPIRIT OF A SOLO SPORT
I love the team spirit of competitive swimming. As a solo swimmer, you assume that it will always just be you but there’s such a team environment, especially at the big events. You’re racing each other but, ultimately, the only thing you need to beat is the time. You can’t control what other people do so it’s almost like a solo race. You’re all rooting for each other. It’s a very healthy environment.
‘I love being part of the Team GB family, especially at events like the Olympics when all of the sports come together... you see the rowers, the cyclists, the runners… There’s an incredible invisible bond tying us all together. You can’t predict what it’ll be like until you experience it but it’s so cool.’
THE OLYMPICS IS JUST ANOTHER MEET
Before my first Olympics, I always thought that competing in something so big would feel completely different to every other competition. What surprised me was that, apart from the size and noise of the crowd and the enormous expectations that are on us, ultimately, I’m still jumping into a swimming pool, swimming exactly the same distance, exactly the same stroke... I’m competing against the same swimmers I always do… then, suddenly, my mind shouts ‘OMG! I’m at the Olympics! It’s ridiculous! It’s crazy!’ It shouldn’t be different but somehow it’s like the universe shifts and it just is. It’s difficult to comprehend because, when you’re alone and thinking about it logically, you realise ‘This is what I’ve done 1 million times before, just on a different scale.’ I try to remind myself this before the big events because I want to focus and win; I can’t afford to get swept away by it all but it’s difficult.
SO EASY, SO DIFFICULT… NEVER LET IT SHOW
Watching other athletes, regardless of sport, always inspires me. They’re incredible, especially when they make it look so easy. I’m in a position where I know how hard it is. You get to the end of a hard race and, at that stage, it’s so tough. Watching the tennis final, running and cycling, they make it look so easy at that stage but they must be dying. When I was younger, I remember thinking ‘Wow! If I could make my stroke look like that…’ so, now, when people tell me ‘When you’re swimming, even at the end, you look like you’re finding it so easy, taking it so casually…’ I just think … *shakes head and smiles*
‘When I see athletes working so hard make their sport look easy, despite the level of effort and determination that I know they’re having to input, it makes me really proud.’
‘… AND I DO MY LITTLE TURN ON THE CATWALK’ #RightSaidFred
The most embarrassingly funny thing happened before my semi-final race at London 2012. During the heats I’d been focussing on centring myself and not thinking about anything else. I had my head down, headphones on and was trying not to be overwhelmed by the crowd or atmosphere. I was thinking ‘I just need to get through to the next round… Next round. Next round. Next round.’ Then the semi-finals arrived and I realised ‘OMG! It’s the London Olympics. It’s at home. I’m never going to have this experience again.’ ‘It’s at home so I really need to experience the home crowd and let the atmosphere wash over me and enjoy it’ so I left my headphones at home. I’d been sitting in the cool room - an underground area beneath the stands where we acclimatise our bodies to the pool temperature pre-race. It’s very quiet in there. Everybody’s sitting around and the marshals walk you out one-by-one as they announce your name. I was in lane 1 so was the first person to walk out. Suddenly, this wall of noise hit me - 17,000 people chanting - it was absolutely mental and I’m British so most of them were screaming for me. I just thought ‘Oh my gosh!’ I tried to find my parents in the stands but couldn’t see them because they were miles away and I’d been so distracted waving to the crowds that I’d accidently walked to the diving pool. I needed the swimming pool so I’d gone completely the wrong way. I looked up and thought ‘Oh s***! This is not my pool’ haha but it was fine. I just styled it out, did a little turn back around the barriers and walked to the proper pool.
We were at competing at the European Championships in Budapest when, 3mins before my race, a massive thunderstorm broke out. They had to postpone the whole afternoon of racing so our coach told us to go and chill out in the underground cool room, which would have been fine but the whole area was literally sloping away from the pool and swimming in 1.5ft of water, all the plug sockets were covered and a total safety hazard. It was crazy.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games were held in Delhi, India. It’s an incredible place but not exactly prepared for high-end performance competitions. The village wasn’t really ready and it was hit-or-miss whether you had basic electricity, running water and things like that. Someone returned to their room and one of the cleaners was using their toothbrush… it was like ‘Ooohhh Goooddd!!’ But that wasn’t it. In swimming, there are official safety regulations determining how warm the pool needs to be for the race to take place but, on the first day of the heats, the pool was way too cold. The pool is quite large (over 2m deep) so it’s impossible to heat enough hot water in time without filling a tank but they’d forgotten that so, when I returned to the pool, there were dozens of people pouring kettles into it. Totally crazy!
FAVOURITE PLACES TO TRAVEL
DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES = DIFFERENT BODY TYPES
One of the things I love most about sport is that it encourages positive body image amongst men, women, all ethnicities and age groups. As athletes we all have different body types developed by- and to improve- our sport-specific goals. They’re all healthy and they all achieve incredible things so it really celebrates the individuality of our natural bodies. For example, I used to train with the Team GB bobsleigh and skeleton team in Bath. As swimmers, we do lots of arm and upper-body exercises whereas they don’t because their sport doesn’t require it but their lower-bodies are unbelievable. I couldn’t even lift the weights off the leg press machine after Lizzy Yarnold had used it! Crazy, crazy amounts of weight!
FAVOURITE OLYMPIC TEAM TO PARTY WITH
The Aussie’s and the Americans are always good fun. Everybody’s so happy after The Games. We all go out and have fun at the same parties, which is really cool. The swimmers are notorious for partying hard but that’s only because we finish competing much earlier than the other teams. We finish before most of the other sports have even arrived at The Village. I have a lot of good friends on the Canadian team too. In London, they had a giant moose mascot outside the apartment block. Absolutely massive! You could easily sit 6 people on it. It was really funny because, every night, we’d come home from partying and see how many people we could get on top of the moose. Like 8 Olympic athletes riding this Canadian moose haha. A good memory!
FAVOURITE ATHLETE TO COMPETE AGAINST
I love competing against the Australians, Canadians and Americans, especially Hillary Caldwell. She’s a really close friend and an amazing swimmer. They always set a good bar and we’re also quite similar in the way we approach races. When you’re racing, you can’t see the other athletes so you don’t really think of them as people. You know they’re there but it’s more influential in the cool room. We’re sitting there for 15-20mins pre-race so if you’d rather chat but you’re sitting with people who prefer to sit in silence, it can be a bit difficult for you. We’re all similar – chatting and laughing relaxes us - so it’s nice knowing that they’re with me. I don’t have to sit awkwardly in a corner and pretend to listen to music or something haha.