Reflections from a Voyage of Discovery Through Sport…
After swimming at an elite level for almost 15 years now, it’s finally time for me to retire. I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time in a state of heavy chlorination, averaging over twenty hours a week in a swimming pool since the age of 13. In total, I’ve swum roughly the circumference of the Earth, but now it’s time to learn how to be a real person…
During my career I’ve been fortunate enough to bring home medals from Commonwealth Games, European and World Championships, as well as claiming 13 British titles, and breaking British, Commonwealth and European Records. I’ve competed at two Olympic Games, Beijing when I was just 17 years old and London in 2012, where I finished fourth in the 200m backstroke. I once broke a World Record, although someone else beat me in the same race. Travelling the world with my teammates, I’ve stood on podiums with the national anthem playing, won and lost races by a fingernail margin. I’ve lived and breathed elite sport. It’s been one heck of a journey, but the time has come to move on.
Before I dive off into the real world there are a number of things that I need to reflect on, and quite a few people and organisations who deserve thanks for the part they’ve played in my journey.
Firstly, I am hugely grateful to British sport for providing an environment where I could push myself beyond the limit, where I could challenge everything that I am, where I would laugh and cry into my goggles on a weekly basis. Continually nudging me out of my comfort zone, thank you for giving me a place to thrive, and for the chance to develop as a person. When I set out as a timid 12-year-old I was scared of everything—staying away from home was a major ordeal, facing competitors reduced me to a gibbering wreck, and challenging myself and the people around me didn’t come easily. But, as the lap tally increased and the experiences racked up, the fear began to melt away.
I spent the weekdays of my teenage years setting an alarm for the outrageous time of 4:07am (I’d precisely calculated this to maximise sleep!) I would drag my parents out of the front door to go training, then off to school, a gym circuit across lunch time, and back to the pool for another session, 7 – 9pm. My schoolmates thought I was mad, but I never questioned what I was doing. I had become consumed by the need to improve, to be better than I’d been the day before, to achieve things that other people couldn’t. This determination to be far more than average—to be the best I can be—has remained with me, so I’m hugely thankful to have found a sport that triggered that initial spark of ambition.
I also owe a great deal to the coaches that I’ve had along the way, Graham, Marc, Ben, Dave, Graeme and Shannon, who have helped mould the athlete and person I am today. It can take years to get the right balance with any coach relationship, to have a connection that fosters respect, trust and commitment. You’re shooting for the same goals, communicating continually, questioning, adjusting, criticising and praising. When the fit is right, training is a dream; when it’s wrong, sessions can be filled with conflict and worry. I learnt so much, striving for that perfect fit, and the process has left me with a huge amount of respect for the dedication and commitment of coaches, both in the UK and internationally.
Likewise, to the support staff I’ve worked with: physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists, sports scientists, strength and conditioning and performance lifestyle coaches. You all played an integral part in my athletic performance and personal development, and in many of you I found a friend along the way.
Thank you to the teammates and friends I’ve had over the years—many of you will always have a place in my life. When I was young and fresh-faced, you were role models; when I needed guidance, you took me under your wings and showed me the way. When I achieved my dreams, you celebrated with me; when I was disappointed, you helped rebuild my confidence. You taught me resilience and tenacity, and how to find humour in the toughest times. When I challenged the status quo, you linked arms and stood beside me. Setting out on this journey I was soft and malleable, but through your valuable lessons I started to grow, both as an athlete and as a human. It’s a great honour to now act as the role model I once looked up to—this time for the next generation. I feel lucky to be able to provide other young athletes with their own space to develop and grow.
Thank you to all the supporters and fans (many of whom I have never met), who have followed my swimming journey over the years. During highs and lows, your kind words meant the world, and you often gave me the perspective I’d sometimes lost. You valued my efforts and personal qualities with steadfast loyalty, and called me inspirational, even during the tough times when I had little self-belief. These comments meant as much as being congratulated on any medal.
I’ve experienced the highs of elite sport, swimming in multiple Olympic finals with the whole world watching. Once I missed out on an Olympic medal by just a few hundredths of a second. It’s been incredibly exciting to be part of British sport during the last decade, to flow with the tide of success that the athletes and coaches of this nation have created. I feel very proud to have played a small part in that movement. It’s an unbelievable feeling to break records and win championship medals, listening to the national anthem, knowing the years of hard work have paid off. I’ve travelled the world, training and competing in countries across the globe, experiencing exotic cultures with my teammates. My parents’ attic is still filled with thousands of items of team kit from across the years, like a dusty shrine to the Union Jack. Ultimately, I’m very fortunate to have taken my ‘hobby’ to a level where I would walk out at a home Olympics with 20,000 people screaming my name, like a rockstar in goggles. I will carry the memories with me always, they make everything worthwhile.
And to the lows. Elite sport is filled with a rollercoaster of emotions, and the true test comes when things aren’t going so well. Injuries, underperformance, missing team selections, funding cuts—I’ve had a fair share of frustrations and disappointments. For some of these challenging times, I accept responsibility, I feel others were triggered by those in authority who were resistant to athlete autonomy and progressive change. The high-performance system is not infallible, and decisions are occasionally made at the expense of the wellbeing of the athletes, and staff, who are striving so hard to augment the advancement of sport. There has been a lot of criticism from the media about British sport disregarding athlete welfare in favour of producing medal-winning robots, but it will always be difficult to effectively balance the prioritisation of performance with the proactive development of well-rounded human beings.
Although I’ve experienced a couple of negative chapters, I’ve always tried to find opportunities when presented with obstacles. After losing my funding in 2013, I spent the next five years of my career becoming financially independent, learning how to generate my own sources of income. I didn’t want to be forced into retirement before I was ready, and, despite the difficult circumstances, I’ve learnt a valuable life skill.
In 2016, after missing out on the Rio Olympics Team I very nearly threw in the towel, but a desire to find the love of swimming again resulted in a move to the Edinburgh University Swim Team. Free from the constraints of the traditional performance structure, but still working with a world class team of coaches and athletes, the move to Edinburgh gave me space to regroup and rediscover the simple reasons why I’d begun swimming in the first place. I’m profoundly grateful to Chris Jones, Mat Trodden and Shannon Rollason for creating an environment where athletes are nurtured holistically and valued as much for their human qualities as they are for their sporting performances. There is no hierarchy there, and athlete-driven decisions are not just tolerated, but actively encouraged. This past year has been one of the happiest of my life and it was great to be back training and racing at my best during the 2017 competition season.
My final race was at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s sunny Gold Coast. I’d struggled with an ongoing ankle injury during the backend of last year, which impacted my preparation for the meet. Although my performance at the Games was far from my finest, being back at an international event was an incredible way to finish. It was awesome to see so many youngsters stepping up to perform and, despite them cheekily calling me “Grandma Simmo”, it was great to be a positive influence on the rookies who are just at the very beginning of their own careers.
It’s been one hell of a journey for me, and I am privileged to have taken the sport I love to the level I have. I’ve sacrificed a lot, but received so much more in return, and I’m left with an abundance of truly wonderful memories from the process.
I plan to remain involved in sport, coaching and mentoring youngsters, whilst using my experiences to help encourage progress at a governance level, with the goal of improving athlete welfare across the UK. I benefited hugely from the performance system in the early days and I am very grateful for the years of support and funding I received, but during the latter stages of my career I struggled to find a space where the voices of athletes are heard and valued. Sport, by its very nature, will always have winners and losers, but objective decisions and polices are essential, and make the inevitable ups and downs fair and easier to manage. At times there’s a risk of trying to contain athletes when they rightfully harbour negative views, rather than focusing on solving the underlying issues. There will always be tough decisions to make, but transparent, objective leadership is key to producing athletes who feel empowered, happy and motivated.
I don’t feel bitterness or anger towards the small number of people who did not help when things weren’t going well for me, as I know that they were likely juggling their own set of demanding pressures, but I’d love to think that someday we can collectively learn to nurture athletes more constructively. Sportsmen and women give so much to stand on that podium, to try and create history, yet we are still human. We rise and fall, and we cannot be valued entirely by our scoreboard statistics. I care enormously about the future of swimming (and sport in general) and will do everything in my power to help develop a more advanced support system that symbiotically promotes both athlete welfare and performance. A huge amount of continued credit and resources must go to the individuals and organisations who are already striving to achieve this balance by effecting cultural changes across sport.
I feel incredibly excited about what the future holds, and I look forward to embracing new challenges, both within sport and across other fields. Like many athletes I don’t know the exact direction of what lies ahead, but I do know that I’ll throw myself headfirst into every opportunity that comes my way.
A final thank you goes to my wonderful family and boyfriend Tom, who have stood by me through thick and thin. Without your gentle guidance and ready humour, I wouldn’t have made it very far at all. I hope now that I’ve left the swimming bubble, your houses may slowly stop smelling like chlorine, and I promise to come home soon and sort the attic out…