In the run up to the Beijing Olympics, PE & Sport Today spoke to Sharron Davies about being a child sports star and lessons she has learned
There are so few examples in the UK of swimmers making their mark internationally as young as 13. What was it like as a child to be one of Britain’s best swimmers?
It was normal progression really into that sort of dedication. I started swimming at six and by eight I was training most days. In those days most swimmers started very young. They are older now. I had to grow up quickly I guess in some ways.
Were there times when you were absent from school due to training? How did your teachers react? Were they supportive?
Some Fridays and Mondays were lost when I was travelling at weekends for competitions. But I tried to catch up and at 15 I went to boarding school where there were other swimmers and the teachers made a big effort to help at odd times to fit into our routine.
To what do you attribute being so talented at such a young age?
I was lucky I found the sport I was made to do. I am the right build for a swimmer and I have a very competitive attitude, it’s the way I was born to a degree. My parents were a big support and means of encouragement. My father was my coach.
Do you think that swimmers are now maturing later? Why is that? Are we are perhaps not pushing young talented swimmers early enough in this country?
It is a good thing we are not pushing our youngster so hard so young. Their careers are extended and they compete for longer, are happier and stronger.
The governing body British Swimming has successfully increased the numbers of mass-participation in swimming and has set up clear ‘pathways’ for talented young swimmers. Do you think Britain has a better chance of medal success in swimming at the London Olympics than in recent past Olympics?
We have always had very successful juniors in the UK – you can see that by looking at the records. But we are just not good at turning that into senior success. We need more 50m pools and a way of keeping talent interested in the sport. Football dominates our TV and press, which makes it hard to make other sports seem as exciting.
What do you think Britain should do to increase its pool of high performance swimmers at national selection level?
More 50m pools would be a good start.
Can schools play a better role in helping to detect young, talented swimmers and channelling them through British Swimming programmes?
One of the things we are trying to do with 2012 fast approaching is talent spot and direct young kids who show promise to where they can be trained, groomed and developed – this is hugely important.
Do you think there are any lessons to be learned from the strong swimming nations such as the USA, Australia, the Netherlands and Russia?
They have a different attitude to us to sport, better facilities and less dominance by one sport. We need to look to Europe, not the USA, who have huge numbers or Australia who has swimming as a massive sport, for what they are doing right.
As sports go, top-level training in swimming is notorious for its punishing schedules and especially early rises. It can be quite off-putting for young swimmers. How would you encourage those with the talent to stick at your sport?
If you want to win you have to get tough. All sport at this level is tough and demands total dedication. Not starting quite so early, say 7am instead of 5am would be better, but if you go to school or college it has to fit in with your other commitments. And you need two or three two-hour sessions a day spread out over the day. Hence the early start.
You won a silver medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, losing out on gold to Petra Schneider, one of the products of the German Democratic Republic’s institutionalised doping system. You were only 16 at the time. At what stage did you realise that you were competing against drug cheats? How did you manage to stay focused on your own goals after that point?
I was 17 at the time and had been very aware of what was going for a long time but unable to get the authorities like the IOC to do very much about it. It was frustrating but I still wanted to win races and be involved in swimming.
Do you feel resentment towards the IOC for not taking action against the GDR?
Yes but the young East German athletes were victims too and physically they have suffered more. Let’s hope it never happens again. The Chinese need to be watched very carefully and we need to be very vigilant.
What was your proudest moment?
My Olympic medal will always be my best achievement in the pool but I loved winning my Commonwealth medals the most and receiving an MBE from the Queen was a good moment for my parents who gave so much to my success.
And your greatest personal setback?
Injury is always a hurdle, of which I have had my share. Viruses are difficult to get over long term and the drug problems have blighted my sporting life but life is about dealing with hurdles too.
Your career was quite unusual, as you made a big comeback after eight years out of training. What made you get back in the pool after such a long break from swimming?
I hadn’t finished and I didn’t want to always be asking ‘what if…?’ I prematurely retired at 19 because I really just needed a break and in those days that didn’t happen. Sport as a business was turning professional but the rigorous training had always been what you would consider professional. I got stuck between the two in a way.
How did you react to being seen as a sex symbol when you retired from swimming?
I take all of that with a big pinch of salt – it’s very subjective and fickle and I just took the opportunities that came my way. I don’t take what’s said in the press too seriously.
Your two elder children must have a particularly strong gene pool for sport [their father is athlete Derek Redmond] – are they passionate about a particular sport?
They love sport – Elliott is a very good rugby player and Grace a good middle- distance runner but they will be what they want to be. I support them but I don’t push too hard. I am very proud of them and would love it if they got as much out of sport as I did.
Would you like to see your children succeed at the highest level of sport, as you did?
Of course, but only if they want it. And maybe in different sports than their parents.
Have you become more involved in grassroots and school sport since having children of your own?
A little, but I still like to work with sports stars at the top level. I go and watch both my kids play their rugby every week in sun and rain like most parents and love it.
How do you exercise now? Is your diet still important to you?
Yes, it is part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I try to work out every other day and eat sensibly. I put on weight when I stopped the first time and once I had lost it through exercise I was determined that would not happen again. But I also love to keep fit and stay in shape too. It’s a habit for me now.
You have had a very varied career since retiring from swimming involving TV commentary and modelling, you are the author of a number of books about health and fitness and you even appeared for a two-year stint on Gladiators. Which part has been the most fun?
All of them for different reasons. Some of them were mistakes in hindsight but as long as you learn from them it is always useful.
What is your latest passion or next big challenge?
Just to be a good mum and working hard. I love the BBC stuff and being at the major events for them. I have many commercial projects on the go and each is a different challenge, which is what I enjoy.
Tina Ryan is a freelance journalist
Sharron Davies is represented by the sports management agency Nuff Respect.