Sarah Ryan was on the Australian Swim Team for 11 years. During her swimming career she competed in freestyle events at the Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympics.
An Olympic Gold Medallist, Sarah has now retired from professional competitions and runs a swim school in New South Wales.
I love being fit and challenging myself as an athlete. Racing is my passion, and during swimming competitions I enjoy seeing how fast I can go. I had an amazing time competing for Australia and travelling around the world with other amazing athletes. It was great being part of the Australian team because it was like being away with friends having fun on a trip. Australians love sport, and swimmers are lucky to have a great support from the public, so it has been nice having fans following my swimming career.
My attitude – I always give 100 per cent. I was on the Australian team for 11 years, and that's not an easy feat. During that time I was completely focused on my training, because swimming is a tough sport to stay involved in.
It is important for an athlete to rest before a big event and have the right training preparation. Training is a pretty scientific process – it's not just swimming up and down the pool every day. There are different paces to practise and gym work to do, which is all carefully mapped out by a coach. It's crazy how much swimming I needed to do to prepare myself for just two laps of freestyle in an event.
I found training to be quite monotonous sometimes. It was all day every week – just the water and me. Even though I was part of a team, training was always an individual experience.
As a young swimmer I had time to hang out with friends, but as I got older my training routine definitely got harder. In my last three years of competition my body wasn't the same and I was always trying to find ways with my coach to make training less laborious and smarter. I think that I was able to keep competing during this time because I had years of experience behind me and was smart about what I was doing.
At the Sydney Olympics, in front of a home crowd of 15 000 screaming Australians, I completely lost the plot. I didn't perform well during this competition because I was stressed about being in my home country and wanted to perform well. It was also the first time my family had come to watch me compete at an international competition.
I spoke regularly with my sports psychologist to make sure that I wasn't talking myself out of races. I also tried to take my mind off the competition by surrounding myself with positive people where I could talk about things outside of swimming.
Because I trained at the Australian Institute of Sport, I was lucky enough to get a job at the Sports Commission doing sports admin for three or four hours a day. They were flexible, which was great because as a swimmer I had to train in the morning, at lunch and then again at night. It's pretty hard to get a full-time job when you are working those hours. This job enabled me to take my mind off swimming and have a break from training.
It didn't happen straightaway, which was the hardest part. When I retired I spent six months searching for a job, which was difficult because I hadn't really planned for life after swimming. I started swimming at 12 and I retired when I was 27, so it was a big shock to suddenly not have a routine or be required at the pool at a certain time every day.
I eventually got a job with ACT Cricket. This experience taught me a few things about working in a different sporting area and dealing with people through my interactions with the Cricket Board and members of ACT Cricket. Then, six months after having my first child, an opportunity came about to manage the running of Kings Swim School.
Swimming is what I know – it's in my blood. A few years before I retired, my husband and I talked about running a swim school and we had discussed it with other ex-swimmers who had done the same thing. It seemed like a natural progression. So my husband and I moved to Melbourne and completed a year of training. It wasn't an easy transition because we had to dedicate all our time to learning this new system before we opened our own centre.
I initially thought that because I had competed at an elite level that I would be able to teach swimming at a lower level. But this is not necessarily a given at all – teaching young children is very different to coaching at an elite level.
The swimming part was easy – my husband and I both love teaching the kids and adults. However, it was tough organising the business aspects of the swim school. It was tough learning how to employ people, organising wages, ensuring stock was ordered and making sure the pool was clean. These are things you take for granted until you are responsible for it every day.
In the first six months of running the swim school I was working seven days a week, but I now focus more on my family than work.
I started a Bachelor of Communications at the University of Canberra and intended to do sports journalism, but I didn't stick with it because I was constantly travelling overseas. I regret not following through with my studies because a degree could have helped me start a new career after I retired from swimming.
Towards the end of my swimming career I started putting more pressure on myself to perform so that I could get some financial rewards, but I realise now that this is the wrong way to be involved in sport. Also, when I retired I didn't know what to do with my life. That was the biggest mistake I made as an athlete – I never planned past my swimming career.
I think that young people just need to learn things for themselves. It's important to learn from your own successes and failures.
I don't have a definite plan at the moment. I am hoping to stay at home with my kids and see how long my husband and I can afford to have only one of us working. The pool will run itself, so I don't need to go back straight away.
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