GLASGOW, August 7, 2018 - “It’s really not that hard! Not for me!” And she has a talent for making it look easy. Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström is a superstar of the sport – along with an Olympic title from Rio 2016 in the 100m butterfly, she has won 10 World Championship titles, holds six world records, and has just added two new gold medals to her European tally of 20. All at the age of 24.
With so much success, so much dominance, it would be easy to think that her two titles at the European Championships in Glasgow – in the 50m freestyle and the 100m butterfly within one hour of each other – are almost matter-of-fact, celebrated, but quietly, humbly, expected.
These gold medals however, are worth just that much more for the sprinter, especially the one from her signature discipline, the 100m butterfly.
“To be able to win here, particularly the 100m fly in Glasgow was a big achievement for me, because it was 10 years ago in that race, that I won my first European title, I’m very proud of that,” Sarah said.
Eindhoven Ten years ago, Sarah was 14. At the 2008 European Championships in Eindhoven, she was a sensational winner in the 100m fly, where the average age of the swimmers in competition was 26, including 32-year-old veteran Slovakian Martina Moravcova. Sarah is the only one still actively competing.
“Winning that title was a complete shock. I didn’t have it as a goal at all. Like now when I go to international competition, I have a goal, not necessarily to win a medal, but to swim a certain time. Then, not at all, it was a big shock for me to be the best there, especially since my competitors in the race were much older than me,” she explained.
She added that it took some explaining for her friends and schoolmates to understand that this wasn’t just another junior title.
“I think they were even more shocked than I was, many people didn’t understand that it was a gold medal from a senior competition!”
Beginnings What makes Sarah’s story all the more striking is that she only discovered swimming four years before she won her first European gold – all because of a classmate.
“I only started swimming when I was 10 years old, because my friend from school was swimming. Before that I didn’t do any other sports. But one day, I just went in with her into the pool and the trainings, and I got stuck,” she said with a smile.
And four years after that day, she wasn’t just a European champion, she was also headed to her first Olympic Games, in Beijing.
Her first Olympic medal however, didn’t come until Rio 2016, where she became the first female Swedish swimmer to win an Olympic gold.
The moment “Rio was my third Olympic Games. Things at those first Olympics in Bejing, did not go as I wanted, I didn’t achieve what I wanted, and I thought Rio was the time for me to maybe, finally, take a medal. This time it wasn’t like Beijing though, I had really big expectations to win. Everyone else really wanted – no, expected – me to win. So I was really proud to have been able to handle that. That was a big moment for me,” the 24-year-old said.
Mental strength Handling expectations, and “refocusing” as she calls it, is all part of the mental training that, again, Sarah makes look so easy.
“When you go out there and stand behind the blocks, right there, that’s the best kind of mental training you can do. And then, try to remember to focus and learn how to handle your feelings in the moment, that’s the key.”
Refocusing in between races is just as important, on Saturday in Glasgow, Sarah had just raced for – and won - gold in the 100m butterfly, attended the medal ceremy, and was back in the pool less than an hour later to win the 50m freestyle. This is the part where she explains, that for her, it’s not really hard at all.
“We do back to back races, where we go all out in training, and in other competitions. I even get a little bit more relaxed for the second race. When I’ve already done a race before, I’m too tired to try to match it, and to think about it, and sometimes I surprise myself,” she laughed.
Out of the pool Her big passions outside of swimming are her family’s two Great Danes, and football. Her summer consisted of preparing for the European Championships, and following Sweden’s quarterfinal run at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“This was a big moment, a big summer for Sweden. Everyone was very proud of the team just for making the World Cup, even that was a huge success, and that they were able to go so far was really amazing. I didn’t miss a match,” Sjöström said.
More to come Sarah has a chance to win two more medals at Glasgow 2018, in the 50m butterfly and the 100m freestyle, and also on her agenda – a new world record.
“I have to work hard to become better all the time. I still haven’t done any personal bests or any World Records [here in Glasgow]. It would be a big surprise if I did, but that is always my main goal, to get better and better, and improve my best times.
“I expect a fast time in my 50 butterfly. I felt very good in the 50m freestyle, so I feel like I have the speed. The 100m freestyle is all about swimming with my right technique and finding the rhythm and have a good plan before I jump in the water. And if I am able to do that I will for sure swim a very fast time.”
Next on the agenda after the European Championships? The 2019 Worlds in Gwangju, and not long after, her fourth Olympic Games, in Tokyo. There is a still lot to work on, she insists.
“My favorite is of course the 100m butterfly, but I feel like the event I can improve the most in is the 50 and 100 freestyle, that’s where I have a lot of things I can do to become even faster.”
That’s the drive that brought Sarah a title at 14, and that keeps her wanting more, 10 years on, and, luckily for the swimming world, she's showing no sign of stopping.