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Back in the swim of things

August 17, 2013
Full medal jacket: Alicia Coutts with the 21 medals she has won over a three-year period of brilliance in the pool. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Full medal jacket: Alicia Coutts with the 21 medals she has won over a three-year period of brilliance in the pool. Photo: Rohan Thomson

She broke down in tears at the world championships last month, distraught in the belief she had let down her relay teammates by anchoring them to second in the 4×100 metres freestyle final. It was a scene fans had seen before, and for which many had shown little sympathy.

But on the eve of yet another tough test at the Australian Short Course Championships at Olympic Park this week, Alicia Coutts revealed the struggle she faced just to get back into the pool after the triumph and torment of the Olympics.

”I’ve struggled this whole year,” said Coutts, Australia’s best swimmer of the past three years. ”I really struggled with motivation and wondered if I wanted to go on. But then I thought ‘You can’t retire. You just won five medals’. I just thought I can’t stop now. I have to keep going.”

Controversies ate away at the team in London, but Coutts was the nation’s shining light, winning a gold medal, three silvers and a bronze to join Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe as the only Australians to win five medals at one Olympic Games.

Those achievements, as well as five gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and five silvers at the worlds in Barcelona in July, have been the highlights of an extraordinary haul of 21 medals from major competitions since 2010 for the 25-year-old Queenslander.

Crying after being pipped in the relay, Coutts suggested, was more about her personal battle with exhaustion and nerves than a reflection of any dysfunction of the kind that left Emily Seebohm in tears after winning silver in her pet event, the 100m backstroke, in London.

”I guess it is hard when people say ‘You only won silver, so you’re only second best,’ ” Coutts said. ”It’s hard to be judged like that. But it’s second best in the world. To do your best and come away with silver is not something to be upset about.”

In fact, of her many successes since 2010, Coutts counts a bronze medal as the most important.

”Winning bronze at the Pan Pacs in the 100 fly was the start of me believing in myself,” she said. ”It was my first individual international medal. I realised at that point that I could do something special in swimming. It was a stepping stone to knowing that I could be more than just a finalist.”

It was also a step towards better dealing with her conflicting emotions of self doubt and fear of failure.

”When I was younger, I used to get physically sick before I raced. I still get nervous. But my coach says ‘Have you been nervous before?’, I say ‘Yeah’. He says ‘How did you go?’ and I say ‘I did well’. It’s just about controlling those feelings and making the most of them. If I didn’t get nervous, it would mean I didn’t really care.”

That’s where Coutts found herself after the Olympics. While she loved the Games experience, it had been hard to stay focused with all the drama around her. When it was all over, she was drained and considered moving on. She took two months off during which, she said, she loved just ”being a normal person”.

”I think everyone struggled a bit after London. And, I’d always thought, when I was younger, that I’d retire after those Games. But I just really love swimming. And, as hard as the training is, I love the racing.”

Coutts knew the longer she was out, the harder it would be to get back in. She returned to training, mixed in some cross-training, and headed to Spain with few expectations. She came home with five silver medals. Her next goal is the short-course event, starting on Friday, and then next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She said she might continue on to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

”Anything can happen,” she said. ”It’s three years away.”


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