'It has got worse and I am nowhere near as fit and healthy as I used to be,' O'Connor said

Credit: Dale Cherry

It would be natural for Siobhan-Marie O’Connor to dwell on the question ‘What if?’ but, in announcing her retirement from competitive swimming, she is determined to focus both on what was and what might follow.

O’Connor is one of Britain’s best swimmers – an Olympic medallist, a World, European and Commonwealth champion and a former world record holder. She is also still only 25 but, having tried everything to make her third Olympics at Tokyo, has had to accept that she can no longer combine the physical demands of elite swimming with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that was diagnosed in 2012 and which affects around 150,000 people in the United Kingdom.

Had the Tokyo Olympics gone ahead as planned last summer, it is probable that she would still have made it to the starting blocks. As it was, a serious flare up in her condition after the International Swimming League last November has made any sort of consistency in training impossible.

“My body just wasn’t allowing me to do what I wanted to do any more,” she says. “It has got worse and I am nowhere near as fit and healthy as I used to be. Every flare up takes its toll. As hard as it was to come to terms with, I think it was my body saying, ‘that’s it’.

“But I have been able to reflect and look back positively during the lockdown. Although this has been really upsetting, I don’t want it to taint what have been the best times of my life with some amazing people.”

The highlights have been numerous. After first starting to swim competitively at the age eight, O’Connor progressed through the lanes of the Keynsham club and then the national rankings to the point of swimming at the World Championships in 2011 and then the London Olympics, aged 16, the following year. “A once in a lifetime opportunity,” she says. “Everything from the opening and closing ceremonies to the food-hall and seeing other athletes just ignited this incredible passion for swimming and the Olympics.”

O'Connor has had a decorated career

Credit: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Her colitis diagnosis also came in 2012 and, while “pretty much in denial” initially, it was a condition that she learnt to manage despite the demands of a sport that involved annually swimming around 2,500 kilometres.

Indeed, after the collective disappointment of the swimming medal haul at London 2012, O’Connor has been part of a British squad that exceeded projections in Rio de Janeiro and are now serious contenders across a range of events, including the relays.

O’Connor won individual silver in Rio, just 0.3 seconds off gold, and there were World and European golds in the 4x100m medley, as well as nine Commonwealth Games medals, including individual victories in both Glasgow and the Gold Coast in the 200m medley. She retires with 34 major medals.

“I think the difficult journey with my health struggles made the feeling of achieving my goals so much better,” she says. “Even when everything was going well, I struggled to put together three good weeks of training before I became ill. It meant that we were always adapting. 

“My immune system is compromised and, as well as the flare ups, I would pick up any bug going around. When I look back, I feel like it’s almost another person and I wonder how I did it. It was mind over matter but I have to listen to my body. If I have bad symptoms now I haven’t got to worry about training six hours a day. For the first time, I have also been able to look back rather than always be thinking about the next race or training session.”

O’Connor has also been looking to the future and, for the past year, has been remotely taking the NCTJ journalism qualification and now hopes to go into sports journalism. “I’m a massive sports fan,” she says. “I didn’t get to finish my A-Levels but I have really enjoyed getting back to studying. I have sat all my exams and I am waiting for the results.” 

The simple mantra which defined her swimming will also stand her in good stead.

“When I was little and first started competing, I remember my mum and dad would say, ‘you can only do your best’. It sounds obvious but it is so true. You can get wrapped up at the elite level in all the different factors that go into a good performance but, really, it just boils down to doing your best day in day out. I always wanted to be able to stand on the blocks and know I had left no stone unturned. It means you have no regrets. I always did my best and that is something I can be really proud of.”