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Sjostrom Is Back

Aug 8, 2014  - Matthew O'Connor

Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom flew to swimming prominence at the 2009 Rome World championships winning the 100m fly in a world record time at the tender age of 15. Many thought the buoyancy of her swimsuit was to thank more than her hard work and determination, and took it as confirmation when she failed to sparkle at the London 2012 Olympics. But Sjostrom conquered the world in Barcelona last year repeating her Rome success, and this year has continued to tear up the record books. In the past month, in an incredible show of speed, the Swede knocked out a 23.9 50m freestyle and a remarkable world record of 24.4 in the 50m butterfly.

Sjostrom’s coach Carl Jenner is the man who keeps the youngster, still only 19, focussed and raring to go. Jenner, a Brit by birth, has spent the past 18 years coaching in Sweden. He’s seen Sjostrom turn from a gangly girl with a lot of potential to one of the most powerful, and versatile, women swimmers the world has ever seen. Sjostrom is a world championship finalist in the 200m freestyle, while her 100m freestyle is currently ranked number 2 in the world.

Speculation persists that if she were to swim a 200m butterfly the world record would be threatened, even though she is reluctant to swim more than “150m butterfly at one time”.  According to Jenner, much of Sjostrom’s success comes from within and from her capability to cope with her training.

She’s a real fighter in training,” he explains. “When we give her the tough work and a tough period of training she’s really able to cope with that in terms of both intensity and volume.

“At the same time she has a great advantage in that she doesn’t think too much out of the pool. She does all the work in the pool but then she has other interests. Basically she’s a competitor, when you put her in a competitive environment, either in training or competition, she responds really well. That’s the thing that makes her stand out from others. She absolutely loves to compete and she hates to lose and she brings that through in the whole of her training and obviously when she’s competing.”

The 2012 Olympics in London, however, didn’t turn out as hoped, despite many tipping Sjostrom for multiple successes, including the media and many people in her home country. What happened?

“She swam really well up until just before the Games. We had the whole year and she missed only four days training from when we started the season in August up until one month before the Olympics. We managed to swim the British nationals, which was exactly a month before the 100 fly started which would be the last event for her. But then she got tonsillitis on the Wednesday before the Swedish nationals and after that she got an infection in her body on the Friday so she was in hospital that weekend exactly a month before competing. She was in hospital on a drip so she couldn’t swim the whole of the following week so we missed 10 days training and we only had 3 weeks left.

“Personally I think that physically she was in a good enough form to compete for maybe a bronze medal in the 100 fly but mentally it just knocked her confidence completely. She was worried about her capacity and she was worried about being able to go out with them and hold with them. It was very difficult for a girl going into the championships with people making out she was going to get three or four medals, it was really tough.”

Which made it all the sweeter to come back last year and win World Championships in a highly successful meet for the young Swede. Did this come as a relief to Jenner?

“It was a bit of relief and excitement really because she had a fantastic year before the Olympics. She had a fantastic autumn coming up to the meet and she was looking really good.  The only question was her confidence and self-belief after the Olympics. The results we had coming in were good. And pre champs she looked very, very good. When we got to Barcelona I wasn’t at all surprised she went that fast because the whole build up worked well and she was relaxed, she was confident and she was swimming fast.

“Connected to that, yes it was a relief. I was at the 25-metre mark when she hit the wall and turned around and I heard this great big scream. And I think the big scream from her showed it was a big relief to her to get back to that number one position.”

Having pretty much won all there is in swimming except the Olympic gold, does that put the focus almost totally on Rio in 2016?

This four year period is obviously all about where we want to be in 2016. I want her to be competing for a medal, so I think really were looking at every year. I want to have a good European Championships this summer and we want to push the 100 fly forward.  We also want to make sure the 100 freestyle is going forward. The 200 freestyle is a difficult event. But at the moment the 100 fly at the Europeans is our main focus. But we’re looking at each year. We want to have a really good Europeans, and World Championships next year is important. Then we really need to start focusing on Rio. Our four year goal is obviously to be competing for medals.”

Sjostrom’s matured over the past 4 years as a swimmer and much of this is thanks largely to training with other members of the national team in a select group that is coached by Jenner and Russian Andrei Vorontsov.

The intensity in training is so much higher. She has girls in there that she can swim against mainly in the freestyle and others she can go against in the butterfly so all of the hard work we do, the speed work and the endurance work is at a higher intensity now as we have eight swimmers in the group that all have the same goal to make finals and win medals at Europeans, Worlds and the Olympics. The environment is so much more dedicated to swimming at a very high standard internationally.

“The environment in the group is great and they’re really good friends so they help each other through the tough times when we’re working really hard and then help each other out at the competitions. Then when we swim really fast it happens quite naturally with the competitive nature of all eight of them. It is a very, very good training environment.”

And what of the Sjostrom’s recent 50m times? Did Jenner see those coming?

“Sarah’s 50m fly swim in Borås was a real shock! In the heats she took one breath so I thought that going without a breath in the final she would go maybe 24.9. But I could never imagine she would go 24.4!! A very special swim and fantastic for her to break a World Record at home.”