'No reason why India can't be as good as China in swimming'

Stephanie Rice, champion swimmer, who won three gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, talks about her retirement, the pressure of Olympics, swimming in India and more.

Stephanie Rice is the event ambassador for the TCS World 10k in Bengaluru.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

When Stephanie Rice quit swimming nearly two years after the London Olympics, it felt rather premature. For, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on debut, she had won three gold medals (in 200m Individual Medley (IM), 400 IM and 4×200m Freestyle relay) and each of them in world-record times.

Yet, more than three years since retirement, she says there are no regrets, having achieved “her biggest dream in her very first race.” Now in the city as the Event Ambassador for the TCS World 10k, the 28-year-old spoke on various subjects.

Excerpts:

What is the hardest part of being an Olympian?

It was going from being a normal person to being someone that everyone recognised overnight. No one can prepare you for that.

What’s going through your mind a minute or 30 seconds before a race?


Not a lot. A minute or 30 seconds before a race when I am on the pool deck, I am looking at the board, my name. I am not looking at the crowd, because I just want to focus on what’s next. The immediate thing. It almost becomes a feeling when you put your headphones on and you can't hear anything else around you. Like, there’s a lot happening, but I am right here, in this moment.

Why did you retire early?

I was mentally exhausted six months before London. I know it's impossible to feel motivated every session. But as a whole if I am not enjoying it, then I am not going to do it. I started feeling that. I couldn't do everything that my teammates were doing. [I was] taking extra time for physio, massage and everything. It felt like a lot.

How hard was it to come back to normal life?

It was hard. Nothing will ever feel the same, walking out to an Olympic Stadium with the screaming crowd, the energy, winning and achieving. That is why a lot of athletes struggle. When you finish at 24 and 25, all your peers are now further in front. Maybe because of going to a University, getting a job, buying a home or something. But you are starting again and you just feel very behind.

Most of the days now I wake up and think thank god I am not training anymore. But when you see those old videos, you realise what an achievement three gold medals was. It doesn't feel real.

Was it hard to stay focussed after Beijing?

I wouldn't say I lost focus but it just became a balancing act of trying to fit everything in, making everybody happy and still get the performance out of me. The difference was that I was the reigning champion going into London and in Beijing I was just another person in the team. Before Beijing I was relaxed. London was more like [fingers crossed] let me do well.

Did you think of a comeback?

Never! Once you have won an Olympic gold, going to one [event] and coming in third doesn’t feel successful to me. One in a billion people win an Olympic gold so it was too much of a gamble to be spending another four years of my life dedicating to sport.

In your time, the polyurethane bodysuits increased speeds and were later outlawed. Recently Nike's special shoes with Carbon-fibre plates were used to try and break the 2-hour barrier in the Marathon. How do you see this?

Sometimes technology can bridge the gap between those who work really hard and the rest. That's unfortunate. I very much prefer to keep it raw. I would have just loved to compete in a training costume or whatever really basic and let the performance speak for itself.

Why is Australian swimming not doing as well?

At Rio we should have done so much better. Australian swimming is not doing enough in terms of mentally preparing its athletes. You can't break a world record four weeks before an Olympics and come fifth or sixth at the Olympics [Cate Campbell, 100m Freestyle]. Once in four years you have less than two minutes to show the world what you trained for. One little screw up and that's your four years gone. So handling that pressure is a big part.

Is India a sleeping giant?


There's no reason why India can't be as good as China in swimming. You can't tell me that a country with this many people doesn't have talent. I think it's about making the commitment, putting in facilities, funding to have good programmes and coaches.