simmonds keeping her head above water

Lizzie Simmonds.

Lizzie Simmonds.

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Seven-tenths of a second is all it takes.

The length of time required to raise your hand and slice it through the water can be the difference between a lifetime’s high and a slippery slope.

Just ask Lizzie Simmonds.

At London 2012, the backstroke swimmer from Beverley arrived at the defining moment of her life – the Olympic 200m final.

Despite a strong swim against rivals setting a world-record pace, Simmonds, then 21, touched the wall fourth in a time of 2.07:26, missing out on a medal by those agonising seven-tenths of a second.

Fourth was an excellent result for the young East Yorkshirewoman and continued her gradual progression in major finals, after eighth, seventh, sixth and fifth-place finishes in previous global meets.

But, as was symptomatic of what was deemed a failure by the home swimmers at London 2012, it was not the medal that earns a tickertape parade or puts food on the table.

Unfortunately, Simmonds has been on a downhill slide ever since.

Injury, illness and a loss of motivation bedevilled her in 2013 to the point where at the end of the year the young woman whose Olympic result was bettered only by double-bronze medallist Rebecca Adlington, became one of the highest-profile female casualties of British Swimming’s enforced funding cuts.

“I knew it would be tight once I didn’t make the world championships last summer,” says Simmonds, 23.

“I was disappointed but it wasn’t totally unexpected.

“I hoped they would have shown a little bit of leeway with people who had been performing year after year on the team.

“But, at the same time, I knew there had been budget cuts within the sport and UK Sport.

“Plus, it was always going to be the case post-London for not just our sport but all sports, because there was so much money put into sport it could never continue like that.

“Luckily, I had been sensible as a youngster so I had savings I could live off. But it has been strange. I’ve had to be more aware of money whereas in the lead-up to London companies wanted to be a part of the Olympics and were throwing sponsorship at you.

“It’s a fickle game, but we’re very aware that this is the way the system is. I wish the sport had more money to be able to support people through ups and downs, but then I understand it’s not people saying ‘we don’t believe in you, we’re not going to give you any money’, it’s about them having a budget and having to follow the guidelines set out by UK Sport.

“As athletes, we’re always on that edge; injury, illness, and just not performing can throw you pretty much into chaos.”

That is exactly how life has been for Simmonds, for whom the first major dip in form coincided with her move from Loughborough to another British swimming base in Bath.

She began to lift herself out of the malaise in December at the start of the FINA World Series events in the Far East with a succession of medals, which, coincidentally, was around the time that the funding cuts were announced publically.

Simmonds had known for some time that 2014 would be spent without the small luxuries like masseuses, travel and kit that funded swimmers have and which can make all the difference.

“A lot of people have said you’ve got to show them, but it’s not about that for me, it’s a personal thing,” she adds.

“I want to get back racing well and swimming fast times.”

The fast times are slowly starting to come back, but whether they are returning quickly enough to earn her a place on the England team for the summer’s Commonwealth Games will not be known for another week or two.

At the recent British Championships in the same Glasgow pool that will host the Commonwealth aquatics events, Simmonds won a silver in the 200m backstroke and a bronze over 100m.

Neither she nor her rivals matched the qualifying time for the summer Games, which in the 200m is 2.07:96.

British Swimming have set high demands on their swimmers, with the qualifying standards being times that would have won a medal at the last Commonwealth Games.

Ironically, Simmonds and her competitors are chasing a time the Yorkshirewoman set four years ago in Delhi to win a silver medal. The 30-strong England team will be named in the next fortnight with Simmonds’s hard work and form since suffering the blow of losing funding understood to stand her in good stead.

Whether she makes the team or not, at least her hunger has returned.

“Last year was frustrating but in hindsight it was a chance to tell myself to get my head back in the game,” she says.

“It might have been a good thing to no longer be constantly rising, to have that momentum check and to regain that focus.

“Every athlete goes through those periods, and I struggled a bit with motivation after the Games. Everything building up to the Olympics was about London, and it was hard to get your head back in the game after that.”

Simmonds’s decline mirrored that of British Swimming, a sport that was left without a seat when the music stopped after a Games in which Britain excelled at all the major disciplines, except hers.

“I think the criticism was a little bit unfairly dolled out,” she says of the widespread villification that led to senior retirements, changes at the top of the sport and the inevitable decrease in funding.

“The swimming team performed really well. We didn’t know about the media crucifying us until afterwards because the team sheltered us from it. It was a bit unfair, there were quite a few fourth- and fifth-place finishes. If they’d gone the other way, things would have been completely different. I know.

“I think the media expected that the Brits would just turn up at the Olympics and they would outperform everybody else. It was a little naive, because at an Olympic Games the whole world turns up to race fast, it’s not just us who are going to be exceptional on home soil.

“I do think there were a few unlucky finishes.”

Even though hers can be counted as such, Simmonds still has fond memories of London 2012.

“The Olympics for me were incredible,” adds Simmonds, who reached the 200m backstroke final in Beijing aged 17.

“To come fourth in the final was bitter-sweet. I remember going to see my parents and just bursting into tears. They were saying how proud they were of me, but I just felt so close to a medal and yet so far away.

“It was just a build-up of all the emotion and being in London, walking out to that roar – I had mixed emotions.

“It’s still a notable achievement to be the fourth best in the world and to come fourth at an Olympics, but it is essentially the worst place to come because it’s just outside the medals.

“The good thing is it left me wanting more. I won’t be satisfied with coming fourth again.”

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