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Spofforth, GBR & Gator: Time To Move On

Sep 21, 2012  - Craig Lord

Gemma Spofforth, British 100m backstroke world record holder and Florida Gator, has hung up her race suit for good. The early morning alarm for training will ring yet sometimes, Spofforth having taken up voluntary coaching at the University of Florida, but the dawn chorus of anti-doping agents will stop when the 24-year-old submits retirement papers to federations domestic and international next week.

The athletic highlight of Spofforth’s career was the world title she claimed over 100m backstroke in what remains a world record of 58.12 in Rome in 2009. She wore a LZR Racer as one of only two swimmers that year - with Michael Phelps - to claim a crown in one of 43 global standards without donning one of the 100% non-textile suits that brought the shiny suits crisis to a head on the way to a ban from January 2010.

Fourth in Beijing 2008 in the solo 100m and fourth again in the medley relay for Britain leading off in a European record that challenged the 59sec mark, Spofforth had improved almost a second in a year wearing the same suit, comparison possible at a time when comparison was almost impossible in the sport. 

Four years on at her second Olympics, it was fifth at a home Games in London 2012, just 0.37sec from the podium. Spofforth cites the wall of sound from a home crowd as an experience she cannot top and urges her to move on.

"I have had a very turbulent career and I feel that I cannot top a home crowd in London or a world record in Rome,” Spofforth tells The Times and SwimNews today. “I cannot top the experiences I have had and most importantly the friends I have made through the sport. When it comes down to it, the races and competition are not what will stay with me, the people and friends I have met and made will stay with me forever.”

Her words are all the more poignant against a backdrop of five years of extreme highs and lows since Spofforth lost her mother Lesley to cancer in 2007. 

Spofforth raced to the crown n the same lane 5 of the Foro Italico in Rome in which Anita Lonsborough had raced to Olympic gold for Britain over 200m breaststroke back in 1960. Before battle, Spofforth blew a kiss skyward. The act had not been premeditated but after the race she dedicated victory to Lesley.

During her time under the guidance of coach Martyn Wilby at the University of Florida, Spofforth became a five-time National Collegiate Athletics Association champion, eleven-time All-American and captained the Gators to the NCAA women’s title in 2010. There were also SEC honours in the mix. Recalling Spofforth’s return from her mother’s funeral, Wilby said his charge had told him to “make sure you never use my mother's passing away as motivation”. Said the coach: “It's been like that ever since. She used it herself."

If grief and torment shaped her athletic career, her experience over the past five years (and more) will also play out in life: having found a therapeutic vocation in crisis counselling and running night-time mercy dashes to the suicidal in her adopted home in Gainesville, Spofforth has started a post-graduate course in the same field at the University of Florida.

Her intention is to combine her experience as an assistant counsellor at the Alachua County Crisis Center in Gainesville and the discipline, direction and sense of purpose required to excel in sport. Her skills, so keen that the crisis center elevated her to an associate position within her first year, have already caught the eye of a non-profit organisation in the US  that works with children who had a bad start in life.

“I would love to thank everyone who has made this journey possible, specifically the unconditional support and love my dad [Mark] has given me over these years,” said Spofforth. “The patience my brother [Peter] has shown with his world-travelling sister. And the fantastic coaching I have received from each and every one of my coaches."

She added: “I’ve started a new life. I'd like to work with under-privileged kids who need that structure in their lives, who need sport or something like that in their lives. To be able to create that avenue for the kids, one that I was so lucky to have myself because I had a fortunate childhood, is something that really motivates me.” 

Spofforth also plans an ascent of the seven great peaks, starting with Everest, after 2015 and funding pending. Gregg Troy, head coach at the Gators and the man at the helm of the US Olympic men’s team during a soaring success at London 2012, has no doubt that she will succeed. “She a great leader, a motivator,” he said. “She was phenomenal at bringing people together, at bonding, so much so that I even had her work with the men [at the Gators] as a surrogate captain. Her work ethic is so high and her approach to other people has been so good.”

In her book Dealing With It, due out in November to coincide with her 25th birthday, Spofforth reveals how she sought to fill the gap left by her mother, how she fought bouts of deep sadness yet managed to “dived into a dark well” before finding a way of climbing out and moving on. In the doldrums in 2011 and trying to stop herself from binging on chocolate, she turned to British chef Jamie Oliver for distraction, spending 100 days cooking the his recipes. Her story, often against-the-odds, is an inspiration to any who have suffered loss and deep sorrow and struggle to find their way back not only to coping but happiness and success.

Among tributes to Spofforth along the way, was this from Ryan Lochte, fellow Gator and winner of five medals, including two gold, for the US at London 2012: “The things that she's had to overcome in her life really made me look up to her. Its just amazing when you lose a loved one like that and still be driven and determined to go out there and do your best. She’s been a friend and an inspiration for a lot of people.”

Such sentiments go two ways. If Spofforth has spoken often about the life-changing experience of her life with the Gators, her father Mark summed up his feelings in a note back in 2010. Here’s an extract: 

"Our daughter seemed to come second most of the time, so you spend some time counselling as well and urging her to keep going. One day you’ll be a winner if you keep trying.

 Eventually she’s offered a golden chance to train at the University of Florida on a sporting scholarship, even if the Coach thinks this is the riskiest scholarship he’s ever awarded, and is daunted by the task ahead trying to get this girl fit ... but again, he sees some spark, some character that he thinks might just turn into something given a following wind.

 Four years later, and that girl is a World Champion, a World Record Holder, an Olympian, and her last act for the University is to lead her team to the NCAA Championship.

 I am so proud of Gemma, but can’t forget that fear of the unknown the day she was born, and the days that we’ve entrusted her on to teachers and coaches who have all paid back that trust with exceptional effort and skill, far beyond what might be expected of an employer."

His thanks extended from the “Gator family” to housemates (Spofforth counts current housemates David Marra, another crisis counsellor, and Gators for life Ana-Liisa Pold, of Lithuania, and Nelle Glasser); the “Beales family, who were there from the first day”, coaches Troy and Wilby “for their coaching skill and their ability to keep Gemma focussed when times were really bad - and believe me there were some bad times”; to UF “for understanding the benefits of bringing in foreigners to work and play alongside your students - I understand the debates about the wisdom of doing that, and I hope that you never succumb to those that would have you restrict your tuition to US nationals alone”;  and the USA “for having a system that has helped make my daughter a World Champion".

He concludes: "But most of all thank you to the sport that she loves and which has helped build character and confidence into what was once a small and sickly newborn baby."

His wife and the swimmer’s mother, Lesley, was the rock on which her success was built. A maths teacher,  she knew how to make hard work count. The bill for piano lessons was paid on condition that Gemma practised for at least an hour every evening. On swimming race days, Gemma was subject to similar strictures. "No talking until you've eaten something," her mother said. "Because otherwise you'll be too grumpy and tired to say anything worthwhile."

There were endless lunches packed, journeys to training and Portsmouth High School, flowers left at home for the athlete every time mum could not make it to a competition (a habit she kept up when Spofforth moved to Florida in 2006, bouquets waiting for her at her dorm every big race day), hugs, kisses, praise (only when deserved), encouragement and support when the chips were down.

In 2005, Spofforth, coached by Chris Nesbit and Graham Wardell at Portsmouth Northsea, developed pancreatitis, was placed on a drip feed, an experience she refers to as the second reason why, years later, she could never include anorexia or bulimia among her cries for help. 

Illness cost her all but a year in the pool but she then successfully applied for a place at the Gators programme at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Wilby, and Englishman 20 years into his own American adventure, was assigned to coach her, after a recommendation from Loughborough coach Ian Armiger and supported by Bill Sweetenham. 

It was Wilby who took the call from Mark Spofforth in December 2007 to say that his daughter ought to come home to say goodbye. Having been unable to make it back to Britain from the US in time to say goodbye to his own mother many years earlier, Wilby was determined to make sure his charge was on the next plane out. Lesley Spofforth died the day after her daughter arrived home. After the funeral, the swimmer returned to Florida to prepare for Olympic trials the following year and harnessed deep emotion to drive her swimming performance.  

Not with the same degree of ease, however, as she had in Rome 2009. Her college career coming to an end in 2010, Spofforth struggled to stay motivated and by Christmas 2011, after her worst season for years, she was ready to quit. She hung on and arriving at St Pancras Station for Britain’s Olympic trials in London discovered that she “really wanted to be part of this ... it was so exciting to see the Olympic rings and all the signs for the Games at every turn”. 

Unable to break the minute at trials, she made the GBR team. Out of 51 individual performances in 26 events among British women in the pool at London 2012, just five performances marked a season best, four of those established by backstroke swimmers Spofforth and Georgia Davies in the 100m and Elizabeth Simmonds and Spofforth's fellow Gator Stephanie Proud in the 200m.

Spofforth and Simmonds, European champions in 2010, were the only two British women in the pool at London 2012 to swim a season best in an Olympic final, while Michael Jamieson, silver medal winner in the 200m breaststroke, was the only many to swim at his best in a final and among a handful who established season best times in any round.

In Dealing With It, Spofforth refers often to the people who provided more than a shoulder along the way, who provided direction and care. 

Of Wilby, she writes: “He cares how we do. He has been a father figure for me. Wilby was the one who sent me home to see mum, who made sure I made it in time. He's been through everything with me. Whatever it was that went wrong, I would go and see him. He worked on sets that were specifically designed with me in mind to help me to get the very best out of myself and he took pride in that.

"That dedication, devotion would never let up, come what may. He has steered me in the right direction and I've placed great store in the advice he's given me when I've had to speak to the media at difficult times. He has brought things out in me that I would have left as a private thought for fear of not knowing how to express something. He's shown me to look at the horizon, the wider picture, how to express how I feel, how to show the warmth in me, the warmth he made me aware of.”

Recalling 2009, she adds: “This day in Rome, he is part of a huge support network that I'm deeply connected too and aware of. From the moment I leave the pool at the end of the race, there's someone waving at me, smiling, cheering, congratulating me. There are Brits in the crowd, the stands and the warm-down pool and up in the crowd as I walk along the deck after the medal ceremony I see people I know back in Florida.

"There's Corale Lopez, the Puerto Rican girl who's a member of our sprint freestyle group. She's standing with Alejandro, smiling down at me, waving. One of the great things about being a Gator is that come the big meet there are people on teams from all over then world there supporting you as their teammate and friend back home in Gainesville. Wilby is actually coach to the Cayman Islands at the championships. I have an amazing sense of support from everywhere. My dad is in the crowd and everywhere I look I see my Gator family, my Britain team family.”

Spofforth will continue to give back to the Gators as a volunteer, among her skills an ability to work with very young children learning their way in the water in the starters programme run by Wilby’s wife Jill. 

It was that work that helped keep Spofforth in the sport in the past year. So saturated had she felt at one stage that she thought she had lost her love of swimming. After she started guiding children aged 2 to 6, she said:  “It's so much fun. It’s that moment when you're teaching the child: we start with bubbles so they can breath out, then we go to kicks and move on to pancake and pencils, for streamlining ... then ice-cream scoops and rainbows … and at first they're swimming underwater. That moment when their first arm comes out of the water, I can't help but smile. I can't help but have amazing energy inside me because of it.”