It was an Olympics of heartache, pain and team joy for swimmers Freya Anderson and Max Litchfield.
Eight medals, including four golds, in Tokyo was a dazzling return for Team GB in the pool.
For Sky Scholars Freya and Max, it was a hugely emotional trip to Japan, in and out of the pool.
Siobhan Marie-O’Connor, a pundit for Sky Sports News and a silver medallist at the 2016 Rio Games, caught up with the swimming duo to discuss their mental battles and hopes for Paris in 2024.
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Freya and Max were part of Team GB’s most successful ever swimming team at an Olympics. A record-breaking eight medals meant third in the swimming medal table.
The Sky Sports Scholars came home with wonderful memories, but the competition was bitter-sweet.
Freya, who moved to Bath’s National Centre in 2020, was at her first Olympics. The preparation for the freestyle specialist was not ideal. She tore a disk in her back in January with a scan showing problems from an old injury. She also had a bowel infection a month before Tokyo.
She finished 11th and 12th in her main events (100m and 200m freestyle) and won gold as part of the Mixed Medley relay team in which she swam the heat.
“I missed so much training and I just didn’t know what to expect in Tokyo,” Freya said. “I just wanted to take each day as it came. My relay race time wasn’t great but I just had to pick myself up, get my head screwed back on and focus on the rest of the week.
“That was pretty much the same story for the whole competition. I just had to be really strong throughout the 10 days of racing. I had to be mentally strong.
“I thought I was the last person that would be able to get back on the horse, but something just clicked inside. I just thought that I needed to go back and get the job done. It was really hard at the time, but looking back I can say that I am quite proud of myself for that.
“It is quite hard. You think it’s set in stone when you have one bad swim, but you just need to take a step back and say ‘I just had a bad preparation for Tokyo’. I need to remember that because the competition was a bit demoralising. I’ve just got to remember the bigger picture.”
Tokyo 2020 was a pivotal time regarding mental health with some of the world’s top athletes, including gymnast Simone Biles, opening up about their experiences. The shift in focus is welcomed by Freya, who felt Tokyo gave her a new perspective.
“I always thought you had to be at the top of your game to be happy but then I realised there is far more to me, and other people, than just swimming,” the 20-year-old added.
A post shared by Freya Anderson (@freyaanderson_)
“Especially hearing from the best of the best like Adam Peaty. He’s been open about his struggles and it makes you feel less alone. Even when I was younger I never heard stories about athletes struggling or being injured – I just thought they were super-humans.
“I kept getting injured growing up and I thought it was the end of the world and that it was only me suffering. You realise, and Tokyo made everyone realise including the public back home, that athletes do really struggle and it’s not just an easy road to success.
“No one knows what you’re going through really. Athletes at the top have this persona that they have it really easy but the reality is that everyone struggles.”
Freya believes the most important thing she learned from Tokyo is appreciating the team behind her.
“I learned so much about the support I have,” she said. “I didn’t realise the extent of it to be honest – from my family and coach Dave. They don’t care about how I’m performing, they just care about how you are as a person and want to make sure you’re OK within yourself.
“I have learned that swimming is my entire life, but it’s not a priority when it doesn’t need to be. The support from home this time was just unparalleled compared to what I have experienced before.”
Freya’s team-mate and fellow Scholar Max Litchfield has also had to deal with issues in and out of the pool and he was desperate to get on the podium in Japan.
On his Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, the Yorkshire-born swimmer had a breakthrough performance with fourth in the 400m Individual medley. Unfortunately, he missed out on a medal again in Tokyo – by just 0.1 seconds.
“From pretty much the moment I raced that race in Rio I made it my target to get a medal in Tokyo, so to come up just short was really tough,” Max said.
“I haven’t been able to watch the race back yet because I don’t want to see it. It still plays on my mind because of how close it was. I think, could I have done anything different? I know deep down that I couldn’t have done anything else.
“It’s just one of those things, sport is hard sometimes and sometimes you come up on the wrong side of it.”
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Despite more agony with missing out on the podium, Max is very satisfied with his preparations and his journey to the Games which was hampered by a big shoulder injury in 2017 that threatened to end his career.
“I can be proud of myself that I gave it everything. I remember GB’s head swimming coach Bill Furniss telling me in 2017 that the injury could finish my career. I told myself I wasn’t going to let that happen. I wasn’t going to let the injury beat me.”
Max successfully overcame the injury with an intense focus and diligence. He got quicker in the pool and has gone on to swim in every major championship final in his event over the past five years.
After the British trials in April earlier this year, Max and his coach at the Loughborough National Training Centre Dave Hemmings looked to improve his efficiency in the water and focus on the weak leg of his race – the breaststroke.
With Paris 2024 now the main focus, Max added: “I think the improvements that we have made to my breaststroke tactically, physically and technically since the trials in April have made such a difference.
“If they can make such a difference in just three months, I’m thinking how much a difference they could make going forward when I have three more years to work on them.
“The times I swam in Tokyo weren’t slow but I just want be better. I’ve got three years now and next time I want to be pushing for the medals.”
After enjoying downtime at home with family and friends, Max and Freya can look forward to 12 months of a jam-packed swimming calendar with three major competitions – The Worlds, Commonwealth and European Championships.
Their first competition will be the third season of the International Swim league this month in Italy with Freya returning for London Roar and Max starting his campaign with Toronto Titans.
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