Laura Stephens has started to carve out a fine career in the senior ranks, with Commonwealth and then World finals spots building on the European medals she won at junior level.
Now, with the Tokyo Olympics on her radar, the Plymouth Leander swimmer chats to us about what it would mean to represent Team GB, her gruelling training regime and the health and wellbeing benefits of swimming.
Many congratulations on your recent performances and on getting yourself within touching distance of Olympic qualification. What would it mean to represent your country at such a major event?
Representing Great Britain at the Olympics has been a dream for me ever since I started swimming when I was 9 years old. It is what motivates me to train hard every day, so achieving that goal would literally be a dream come true. Swimming is such a tough sport, and I have definitely had moments where I was close to giving up, so finally reaching that goal would show how all the effort has paid off.
We all know about the rigorous training regimes professional athletes keep, but can you give us a breakdown of a typical day for you whilst in training?
A typical day for me starts at 4.45am when I wake up to go to the pool for my first training session. I swim from 5.30am to 8am in the morning, and then go back home for breakfast, maybe some work for my university degree and recovery. At 1.30pm I head back to the pool for my second training session from 2.00pm to 4.15pm. I then have a gym session from 5.00pm to 6.00pm. This is pretty typical for me Monday-Friday. Saturday I only have one swimming session in the morning, and Sunday is recovery day.
What are the next stages of qualification for you and when do you find out if you have made the team?
There are two more chances for me to qualify for the Olympics. One is at the European Swimming championships at the end of May, and the other at a competition in Glasgow at the beginning of June, meaning I should know if I have made the team by June 9th.
We are covering the health and wellbeing benefits of swimming. We know of many health benefits, but how has swimming helped your mental health, especially during the recent pandemic?
Swimming really allows me to relax and take a break from thinking about busy day to day life. I find it always lifts my mood and has kept me in a good routine throughout the pandemic. While the rest of the world has been turned upside down, it has always been reassuring to know I can return to the pool and switch off for a bit each day to find a bit of normality again.
What are your earliest memories of swimming/learning to swim?
I learned to swim as most children do through school swimming lessons. I was actually following in my older sisters footsteps as she took to water before me and really enjoyed it. I admit I disliked swimming a lot to begin with, and there were many tears on the poolside before each session. However, when I started some regular club training and competing, that was when I found I loved the sport.
When was the first time you realised you could make a career out of swimming, and was there a race that stands out in your mind when you felt like a winner for the first time?
My first age group national titles at 13 years old. I won both the 100m and 200m Butterfly at that meet and I have very fond memories of those races. It motivated me to start thinking about international success and start to believe I could make it as a professional swimmer.
How often do you get chance to get out and about in Plymouth and where are your favourite haunts?
I only really get a chance to get out and about on weekends, mainly Sunday when I do not have any training. My favourite area of Plymouth is the Barbican. I spend a lot of time there, specifically in Rockets and Rascals, getting (the best) coffee and chilling out.
Is there a piece of advice you can offer any young swimmer to help them improve their technique or style?
I would say just be vigilant and consistent in every training session. Technique is so important for swimming and the earlier you start working on it the more you will thank yourself later. Your coach is there to help you so listen to them when they give you pointers and remember to think about them. There is definitely some things like underwater kick which I wish I had worked on earlier in my career.
"Swimming really allows me to relax and take a break from thinking about busy day to day life. I find it always lifts my mood and has kept me in a good routine throughout the pandemic. While the rest of the world has been turned upside down, it has always been reassuring to know I can return to the pool and switch off for a bit each day to find a bit of normality again."
Finally, do you ever go to sleep at night and dream of the gold medal around your neck?
Definitely! As I said before going to the Olympics has been such a huge goal and dream for me for such a long time, it does feel like all I do is eat, sleep and breath swimming. I think it is so important to have things to work towards and remember why you chose this lifestyle on the tough days. It is in those moments when I feel low where I’m able to pick myself up and carry on because of what I want and believe that I can achieve.