Interview - Lizzie Simmonds: Education in what it takes to go for Olympic gold

FOR a teenager, living away from home, gaining an education and managing a social life can be stressful.

Throw into the mix an ambition to win Olympic gold in two years and a training programme that demands 31 hours a week, and it becomes quite clear that for Lizzie Simmonds, time is precious.

Not that the 19-year-old, from Beverley is failing to take such life-changing moments in her stride, or her stroke, for that matter.

For Lizzie is one of the rising stars of British swimming.

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On the back of the success of golden girl Rebecca Adlington and fellow Yorkshire swimmer Joanne Jackson at the Beijing Olympics, Simmonds has risen over the past two years to the top of her chosen discipline, the 100m and 200m backstroke.

In Budapest, last month, she became European champion in the longer distance, ahead of her close rival, good friend and 100m world champion, Gemma Spofforth.

Next month, in Delhi, she will look to make it a momentous double when she competes in the Commonwealth Games.

In the pool, times are precious. It is why she spends 24-25 hours a week working hard on her technique and her stamina, and a further six hours in the gym, creating the muscle power to help her touch the finish line before her rivals.

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With the London 2012 Olympics on the tip of all sports stars' tongues, Simmonds would be forgiven for letting everything else take a back seat.

But education is important to Simmonds, who was schooled in Lincoln when her parents moved from Beverley.

"I took a couple of years out when I moved to Loughborough to

concentrate on the Olympics, so the further education I'd started in Lincoln stopped," says the erudite and confident young woman.

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"I've realised now, though, that I'm not one of those people who can just swim, I need some mental stimulation as well."

Simmonds studies AS levels in English language and literature. Current classes are held with private tutors to fit around her intense physical schedule, which for a teenager who travels the world competing in big events, can be difficult to manage.

"We have tutors that come in so I can study as and when, and they're pretty supportive when I go away," she says.

"It is tough, though, particularly when you're away for six to eight weeks.

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"You've got to motivate yourself to do the work when you're pretty knackered from swimming, and that's not easy.

"I can cope with it and it's good for me to have something on the side instead of just swimming.

"I'm not really sure where the education will take me. There's a lot of things I've been thinking about recently, but it's just having the option of possibly going to university. I don't want to finish my swimming career with just a couple of GCSEs and nothing else.

"With studying English, I'll probably go into something like

journalism, media; something writing or something talking."

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Given her success in the pool, it would be natural to expect a similar return from whatever Simmonds goes on to after swimming.

But, as any top-class swimmer will testify, no amount of natural talent can be harnessed without hour upon hour of intense physical training. Tales of sessions in the pool before sunrise are commonplace among swimmers.

The national sports programme at Loughborough University was the

natural choice for an ambitious athlete, and has given Simmonds fresh perspective on the two people who helped her most in her fledgling career.

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"Usually, my dad would get up in the morning and drive me to training, then he'd head back home and go off to work, then my mum would pick me up a couple of hours later before school," says Simmonds, who, before joining Loughborough, swam for the Lincoln Vulcans.

"You take it for granted when you're at a place like Loughborough and you're starting at 7.30 in the morning; you remember the days you used to get up at ten past four on a winter's morning and your parents had to drive you to training.

"I'm very grateful for all the support they gave me.

"Without being typically pushy, they just wanted me to enjoy what I was doing and obviously they were really proud of me."

Like most students, Simmonds returns home whenever she can. And her parents follow her around the globe as often as finances permit.

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"I've got two brothers back in England; they came out to Budapest for a couple of days and saw the 200m backstroke, which was great. They've always been very supportive," she adds.

In the last two years, she has competed at the Beijing Olympics, the world championships, in Rome, the Europeans, in Budapest, and international meets all over the world, from Stockholm to Melbourne; cities which are wonderful places to visit for a wide-eyed young traveller, not that she gets to experience them between training, competitions and studying.

For Simmonds, who is an ambassador for the Wells Sports Foundation, which helps under-privileged children succeed in sport, says: "Rome was so hot last year that if you were racing any time in the week, then you didn't want to be going around sightseeing, walking around before you had to race.

"Some went and saw the Colosseum, whereas I was racing at the end of the week so I couldn't do that.

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"The more races you compete in, the less sight-seeing and shopping you do – it's more a case of staring at your hotel room wall.

"If we go away on training camps, it's nice to have an afternoon off to do the normal things; go down to the beach, go to the cinema etc.

"That's what I like to do when I'm at home or at Loughborough, just chilling out with friends, shopping. And it only takes an hour and half on the train to London – I only found that out last week and I was quite impressed."

It will be Simmonds hoping to do all the impressing in London in two years' time.