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Sarah Sjöström. Photo: Aleksandra Olejnik
Sarah Sjöström. Photo: Aleksandra Olejnik

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Swedish swimming ace Sarah Sjöström reaches for gold

Swedish swimming ace Sarah Sjöström has broken more world records and won more championships than any of her predecessors. Yet there is still one medal missing from her collection – something she hopes to change in Rio de Janeiro.

Sarah Sjöström

Born: August 17, 1993, in Stockholm, Sweden
Height: 183 cm
Competes in: Butterfly, backstroke, freestyle

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While the 2016 Olympic Games may still seem far off for many of us, preparations are very much under way for world champion swimmer Sarah Sjöström.

“My goal is to stay healthy and injury-free,” Sjöström says. “If I’m in good form once I get to Rio, I’ll be able enjoy myself, and when I’m enjoying myself, things usually go well.

“An Olympic medal would be huge, so it goes without saying that I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.”

If you want to excel in sport, it is best to start at a really young age. When Sjöström took up swimming the age of 9, she was already comparatively old.

“Things started happening really quickly, and I was swimming competitively before I knew it,” she recalls. “I discovered that I loved competing – both with others and against my own personal best – so

I thought, ‘This is fun, I want to keep doing it.’ ”

Sjöström had her real breakthrough at the age of 14, when the Swedish Swimming Association ­invited her to join the national team at the European ­Championships in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Her father, Göran Sjöström, recalls, “We thought it would be a nice experience for Sarah to tag along with the “real” swimmers and check it out, but ­instead she went and won a gold medal.”

‘An Olympic medal would be huge, so it goes without saying that I’ll do everything I can to make it happen’’

Sjöström continues, “I was in eighth grade and the European Championships coincided with my Easter break. I didn’t have any expectations; I didn’t even know what my world ranking was. I just thought it was cool to be going to a foreign country.”

Sjöström did well in her early races before beating the Swedish record in the semifinal of the women’s 100-meter butterfly. In the final, she faced considerably tougher opposition in the form of local hero and gold medal favorite Inge Dekker.

“I can’t even describe what it felt like when I realized I’d won,” Sjöström says. “If you watch the footage of the end of the final, you’ll see that the ­stadium had gone completely silent, and all you can hear is me screaming.”

Her long-term coach, Carl Jenner, says, “Not many athletes are able to deliver their best performances when it really matters, but Sarah always does just that. Once she’s out there, she’s fully focused on her race, and it really doesn’t matter who’s standing next to her.”

The year after her triumph in Eindhoven, Sjöström went on to win a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the World Aquatics Championships in Rome. She also set the first of many world records, including one in the semi-final that beat one set by Inge de Bruijn nine years earlier. The following day, in the final, she won gold – and improved her record-­beating time. Sjöström was still only 15 years old.

“I hadn’t planned to win a gold medal or set any records,” she says. “It just happened that way. These days it’s different – I want to break records and win all the time.”

‘I love competing, and I wouldn’t change my life for anything’. Photo: Aleksandra Olejnik

During her career, Sjöström has broken a total of seven world records, currently holding four (50-meter butterfly long course, 100-meter butterfly long course, 100-meter butterfly short course, and 200-meter freestyle short course).

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe the feeling of breaking a world record or winning a gold medal,” she says. “I’ve been absolutely over the moon every time.”

“Sjöström is more emotional than people might imagine,” Carl Jenner says. “When things go well, they go well, but if they go badly, she gets angry. One of her greatest strengths is that she doesn’t over-analyze. She always focuses on the here and now and doesn’t dwell on what might have been.”

Sjöström admits that beating her own world record in the 100-meter butterfly earlier this year at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, was a particular highlight of her career.

“I’d been waiting six years to break that record again,” she recalls with a wide grin.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sjöström. In the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, she was unwell and unable to prepare properly. At the Games, she competed in four individual events, reaching three semifinals and finishing a disappointing fourth in the final of the 100-meter butterfly.

Sjöström says she never considered quitting, but she knew the time had come to make some changes. She took a few months off to study for her high school diploma before joining Sweden’s National High Performance Center in Stockholm and bringing in a new coach, Andrej Vorontsov, who now trains her alongside Carl Jenner.

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe breaking a world record or winning a gold medal’’

“The center has meant so much to me,” Sjöström says. “I’m part of a team now and they’re all incredibly competitive, which has made my training far tougher and more effective. I’ve also gained a new group of friends who I really enjoy spending time with.”

Sjöström was quick to regain her form, winning a new gold medal in the women’s 100-meter butterfly at the World Championships in Barcelona in 2013. The following year, she won four golds and a silver at the short course World Championships in Doha, before setting set two world records in Kazan earlier this year.

“Sjöström was always curious and outgoing and never afraid to go after what she wanted,” her father says. “If things didn’t go her way, she never gave up until she’d succeeded. I think these are the qualities that make her a born winner.”

Despite her enormous desire to succeed, Sjöström is not the type of athlete who only cares about training. Apart from her swimming friends, she says that her parents, her three siblings, and her boyfriend, Johan, are the ones she cares about most.

“Swimming is what I do for a living and, while I admit that I love to succeed, it’s just like any other job,” she says. “What’s most important to me is the well-being of my family, boyfriend, and friends.”

Although Sjöström travels a lot, she says it doesn’t have a negative impact on her personal relationships.

“I’m never gone for more than a couple of weeks at a time, and it’s so easy to keep in touch these days, thanks to technology,” she says.

“People ask me what I’ve had to sacrifice for my swimming, but I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything. I love my day-to-day life, I love competing‚ and I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I get to spend a lot of time in sunny, warm places, I travel the world – I really am incredibly lucky!” 

By Isabelle Kliger

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Last edited: May 20, 2017

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