Early Starts, Missed Weddings and Injuries - How to Be an Elite Swimmer

 Mark Foster

When you first get into a swimming pool, no one sets out to be a world champion. Not me, not Michael Phelps, not any of the swimmers currently at the World Championships in Budapest. It generally just starts with being taken to the swimming pool as a kid. I was sporty and my mum wanted to keep me busy, whether that was basketball or swimming or whatever. But there comes a point in your life when your sport chooses you and, for me, it started to get serious when I was about 10 years old. My mum would wake me up at 5:15 am and, I'm not going to lie, there were days I hoped she would sleep through the alarm. She never did. I'd eat breakfast on the way to the pool and I'd do two hours training before school. "Chlorine boy" is one of the many names they gave me.

My mum never made a fuss and my older sisters never complained when weekends were taken up by swimming competitions. They got their revenge; these days they call me "golden boy." But there were sacrifices, for both my family and me, and that will be the same for the current crop of elite swimmers.

The one that still haunts me 25 years on is missing my sister's wedding. At the time, there was a competition that was offering money and we agreed as a family that I'd compete. Looking back, did the money make much difference to my life? Maybe not but it seemed important at the time.

'It's hardly going down a coal mine'

As for other sacrifices, I have never looked at swimming like that. I was 11 years old when I competed at my age group championships, winning five out of six events. I looked at similar results in the US, China and Australia in the Swimming Times and compared myself to the fastest in the world, which was pretty cool.

And as I grew older and eventually turned professional, my morning starts, mercifully, became later -- 8am, which was very manageable. And when people talk about sacrifices, I used to go to Australia every January for a six-week training camp. It's hardly going down a coal mine, is it?! I didn't know any different. Swimming was the bubble I lived in and it was all I knew.

Okay, we beat our bodies up but that was out of love and passion for the sport, for your job. I genuinely loved it. And that's the same for swimmers today. Much has changed from the early part of my career but a lot is still the same, too.

They still work in a four-year Olympic cycle and, outside of that, there are national, European and World Championships as well as the Commonwealth Games. And the current generation still have the same goals. Much of the day-to-day stuff remains the same and is still every bit as grueling. When I was younger, the training I struggled with most was swimming something like 60 or 80 kilometers in a week.

I had a short attention span -- I still do -- so that's why sprinting suited me. It also played to my physiological strengths. I loved doing 25 or 50-meter sprints, then having a break before going back in. I know long-distance swimmers think the sprinters are lazy because it looks like we're standing around the pool talking a lot. Sure, that did happen, but in between short, intense bursts.

Training on the track with a world-class hurdler

My obsession was doing anything to get quicker. I would run on the track. World and Olympic champion hurdler Colin Jackson trained me for a time and I would run 200 meters in 25 seconds, not dissimilar to what I was doing in the pool.

Admittedly, there's a greater sacrifice involved in being a distance swimmer, pounding length after length of the pool -- or "counting tiles," as I used to refer to it.
I'm sure all distance swimmers would like to be sprinters but, if your body isn't made that way, there's not much you can do about it. To me, all that mattered was 32 strokes in 21 seconds -- that's what my event was about. So, I needed to get as much power as I could any way I could. But I had to balance being as strong as possible with being as light as possible.

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Domain: Afterhours
Category: Sports
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