Sarah Hardcastle of Great Britain had one ambition and that was to stand on the top position of the victory rostrum at a major world event. It was a dream that was thwarted at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by the Americans and two years later by the East Germans at the Madrid World Championships. But with the idyllic backdrop of Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, on a sunny Friday afternoon, her dream came true as she trounced her rivals to win the 800 m freestyle.
It had been a long wait and the victory was all the sweeter. Sarah, now 26, is the first to admit that not all her main rivals, including Janet Evans, USA, the world record holder, and Hayley Lewis, AUS, ranked number one over the distance long course in 1995, were present. But to her, winning was important. "I needed this gold to be sure coming back has been worth it. When I won, it was such a relief."
Her first international career started at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. It lasted less than four years and ended abruptly, shortly after the World Championships in 1986. Yet that summer had been her best. At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games she had come within 15/100ths of the world record for the 800 m freestyle, a record then held by Australia's Tracy Wickham. But from the high of Scotland she hit rock bottom in Spain. Deep down, Sarah did not want to put her head on the block again less than two weeks after Edinburgh, as she felt mentally and physically drained.
But there she was, lining up again. In the 400 m freestyle she won bronze behind the East German pair of Heike Friedrich and Astrid Strauss. But the devastating blow was yet to come. In the 800 m freestyle she failed to win a place on the winners' podium, finishing a disappointing fifth, some 12 seconds slower than at the Commonwealth Games.
Sarah admits that as a teenager she was "an arrogant youngster." She had no fears and believed she could beat anyone, so this defeat was a bitter blow and something she failed to come to terms with. Shortly after returning home she announced her premature retirement, as she could not cope with the feeling of failure and the heartache it all caused.
It was a very different Sarah who returned to the sport in 1993. As a mature woman of 24, she realized the responsibilities. She worried about her rivals and allowed nerves to get the better of her as she set such a high standard and expectations of herself. Success at her second attempt had not come easy - a relay bronze at the European Championships in 1993, followed by a relay silver and her first individual medal, a bronze at the Commonwealth Games the following year. 1994 very nearly saw a repeat of 1986 in that the World Championships in Rome followed the Victoria Commonwealth Games by just days. Fortunately, retirement, which was considered, was avoided this time. Sarah, who had not wanted to compete in both events, was disappointed when she failed to make the top eight and could not face a repeat performance in the 800 m free, so she withdrew.
The following year, 1995, started with her marriage as the priority for Sarah. She managed to combine both training and the stress and emotional upheavals any young bride goes through as she made the arrangements for her big day.
Things went well at her wedding, a perfect day enjoyed by all. But two weeks later, at the European Trials, she was ordered by the meet doctor to withdraw due to ill health, which eventually kept her out of the water for several weeks.
This meant she had qualified for just the 800 m freestyle. Although she is Britain's fastest 400 m swimmer by far, the two swimmers who had finished first and second at the Trials insisted on keeping their places. Sarah was asked to compete in the 4 x 200 m freestyle relay but she felt it was unfair to take a place away from one of the other swimmers who had competed in the 200 m at the Trials and won her place. The controversy and rumblings within the sport over the subject was something Sarah could well have done without, as there was enough pressure trying to get fit again in such a short time.
By the time the European Championships in Vienna came around at the end of August, Sarah was fit physically but not mentally. From the first few strokes of the final it was obvious she was tense and off the pace. She finished a disappointing seventh and almost immediately the memories of Madrid came flooding back. The heartache and feeling of failure were uppermost in her mind. Should she or should she not continue? But the yearnings for that elusive gold medal and an MBE as recognition for her achievements were still strong, so carrying on was the answer.
Yet another problem for Sarah to cope with. Her coach, Rosa Gallop, went into hospital for an operation and was going to be out of action for nearly all of September and October. Who was going to see her through the session set? After much discussion, Clive Durran, an assistant to Rosa at Bracknell, joined the team. He was no stranger to Sarah as he often took her sessions when Rosa was unavailable.
The standards Sarah was setting herself were making her nervous before a race, so the help of a hypnotherapist was sought. Doctor Geoff Cook saw Sarah for six weeks prior to the World Short Course Championships and taught her self-hypnosis. This she did on the day of the final. Self-belief was no longer lacking. She was calm and confident. A different Sarah Hardcastle came under starters orders. The calmness and confidence reflected throughout the race.
Dagmar Hase of Germany led until the 600 metres mark, when Sarah came into her own. But what satisfaction Sarah must have enjoyed when passing Dagmar. The German swimmer, who won the 400 m freestyle at the Barcelona Olympics, had dedicated her Olympic gold to Astrid Strauss, Sarah's old rival from the 1980s.
Hardly dry after her swim-down, Sarah began to consider retirement. She had now won that coveted gold medal. Should she get out on top or face the chance of failure at the Atlanta Olympics? Even her time in Rio of 8:26.46 was some two and a half seconds slower than her best set two years earlier. Could she face the self-discipline, hard work, and sacrifices needed for Olympic glory? What if she failed? Could she face the heartache and disappointment?
One of the things that had helped persuade her to carry on after the European Championships was the fact that Sarah and her husband, Lee Thomas, were to spend their delayed honeymoon in Brazil after the championships. Would the holiday help persuade her to continue and aim for the ultimate prize in sport - an Olympic gold medal? She returned home just five days before Christmas fully rested. But still no decision.
Sarah swam on Friday, December 29, under the supervision of Rosa, and she soon realized and admitted to herself that "I'd be a fool to call it quits seven months before the Games."
But at 26, she prepares for Atlanta with her eyes wide open, knowing that if she is to have a chance at any colour of a medal, she must recapture the kind of form that brought her to within a hair's breadth of the world record a decade ago. But one thing is clear - she does not want to be a tripper, making the Games just so she can extend her list of where she's been and competed. To have that attitude, she believes, would be "a waste of time. You should always want to improve. For me, I have to get better or I feel a failure. Until I competed in Rio, I thought my comeback had been unsuccessful. I'm not a tripper and have to be competitive in my races or I'd rather not compete."
Sarah has no regrets about her retirement at the tender age of 17, claiming "If I hadn't, I would never have been working at Fords where I met my husband."
To anyone who is a little bored or disillusioned with the sport, she gives this advice: "You should follow your heart. If your heart has lost interest in something you should stop doing it until you regain your enthusiasm. Otherwise you will not give it all the effort it requires to be successful."
Sarah's husband was the motivator in her comeback. He gives her the mental support and encouragement that she hopes will turn the silver and bronze of Los Angeles into Atlanta gold.