Jazz Carlin is four months into the rest of her life after 14 years as an international swimmer. Wales’ Commonwealth champion and Olympic medallist spoke to Liz Byrnes about life after swimming, her hopes, her fears, and her body.
When double Olympic silver medalist Jazz Carlin announced her retirement from the pool she embarked on a new life that has brought a host of changes where excitement coexists with uncertainty.
Carlin revealed she would be quitting the pool in February 2019 following a career that encompassed the misery and desolation of missing out on a home Olympics in 2012 through to the joy of double silver in the 400m and 800m freestyle four years later in Rio de Janeiro.
There were tears on the podium in 2014 when she became the first Welsh woman to win a Commonwealth swimming title in 40 years with victory in the 800m freestyle before she went on to twice top the European podium in Berlin weeks later.
Only 2008 Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington has gone faster in European waters than Carlin who left the sport at 28 holding all Welsh records from 200-1,500m freestyle.
Put that way it sounds black and white but coming to such a decision is itself daunting with a whole new world beckoning and one that Carlin wrestled with before accepting the time had come.
Carlin, who is based in Bradford-on-Avon, said: “I wasn’t completely sure but after a few months I knew it was the right time: I felt like I had achieved everything I had ever wanted to in sport and now was the time to enjoy myself in different aspects and enjoy my life in other ways.”
With her decision came changes and whereas for years there had been the regimented nature of life as an athlete, now there was a need for self-reliance.
She added: “It is a tough transition between having life as an elite athlete and having sport as your life to changing and being in charge of your own career.
“And I guess doing sport now because I want to rather than because it is what my life is. It (sport) is not my life any more – it is trying to fit it into my life in a positive way now.”
The former Swansea Aquatics swimmer has many strings to her bow, working with the next generation as an athlete mentor with Swim Wales and as an ambassador for Speedo as well as giving clinics, one-to-ones and talks.
It is, Carlin says, her time to find out what she enjoys doing although she has felt the loss of the highly-structured life of an elite athlete where everything is planned, organised and monitored.
“Every week you get sent a weekly plan about where you have got to be, at what time, physio appointments – everything – and you know that routine day in day out, week in week out,” she said.
“It was what I had been doing for years.
“Then you step away and it did take me a while to be okay with it and feel normal again because now I am in charge of my own diary and making decisions for myself rather than knowing what I’ve got to do week in, week out.
“That was one of the toughest things I think – stepping away, not having that routine anymore and being able to go out chase it myself.
“It is different: a different lifestyle and I guess there are so many pros and cons.
“Elite athletes are very sport-driven: you have to watch what you eat, what you drink, making sure you rest, you don’t really have that social life.
“Now I can go out and see my friends and go away with them but I do miss the structure that sport gave me as well. It is about trying to get that balance.
“I think I am starting to find my feet again and finding it in other ways.
“It doesn’t give me the same structure I had as an athlete but it’s different and I am embracing it and enjoying the change.
“I guess it’s like everything – it’s accepting something new and I’ve not always been one for big changes.
“But I have had to embrace them and try and enjoy them and use them for my happiness and to my advantage.
“I guess now it is also trying to fit some kind of exercise into that routine because I know that exercise makes me feel great. So it’s about using them to help me feel better about myself as well.”
Part of that structure was a gruelling training regime under Bud McAllister at Swansea before his move to Australia in 2014 and subsequently with Dave McNulty at Bath.
Nothing was left to chance in pursuit of her goals but now exercise has taken on a different complexion, although no less essential in her life in terms of physical and mental wellbeing.
She said: “I think with elite sport you are pushing yourself to the next level all the time and you are exhausted most of the time.
“I guess it is that fine balance, doing enough exercise and sports stuff to make you feel good and happy whereas as an elite athlete I would push myself to the limit trying to find that bit extra.
“Now I can actually go for a run and come back and I feel great and I feel alive after doing it which is a really nice feeling and I guess something that I have not really thought about it for a long time because it’s always been something that I have worked so, so hard for.”
She was not prepared for the changes to her body, however, a consequence of leaving behind the hard yards in the pool and gym.
There was a period of struggle while Carlin came to terms with her changing physique in a world where we are bombarded with images of so-called perfection.
It culminated in a post to social media where she spoke of her loss of confidence and her subsequent path to embracing those changes.
“It’s weird,” she said. “We always notice even the smallest changes about ourselves and we can really see them. I knew my body shape was changing, I wasn’t as lean as I was before.
“I went through a stage where I just really wasn’t happy with what I was looking at in the mirror.
“I guess because I had been used to seeing my body a certain way for so long and I didn’t think it was changing in a good way and in a way that I liked.
“So I was a bit in denial about it really, I didn’t really want to think about it or admit it but I am really glad I did speak up about it because so many people have been able to relate to it and it does happen and it is very common.
“I guess trying to accept the body changes and being confident in the skin we are in.”
She added: “It is tough because being involved in sport I thought that was how I had to look to feel good about myself.
“I guess you do get used to seeing things all the time on social media and you think that is how you should look to feel good about yourself.
“Sport has been amazing to me and forged my body this way but now it is changing and it’s like the new chapter in my life and it is about accepting that new phase. Not trying to strive for this impossible thing that only 0.01% can look like really.”
It is only a little over three short months since Carlin left the pool behind since when she has encountered the challenge of forging a new life.
It is easy to presume that elite athletes who have achieved so much in the rarefied air and sometimes brutal environment that is Olympic sport can make a smooth transition.
Carlin overcame injury and illness as well as her London heartache in 2012 to push herself through exhaustion to Olympic glory but she believes there is a need for greater athlete support.
She said: “I think that is an area that needs to be improved on.
“I think at the minute there is not a huge amount of support for athletes that have retired and they kind of leave it down to them to sort themselves out.
“People struggle getting jobs because they haven’t got the experience; they have been swimming for their whole lives and they’ve got these amazing university degrees and masters degrees but they don’t actually have the experiences.
“I think there should be quite a lot more support to transition people from elite sport in to real life because there are such big changes going on everywhere – physically, mentally, and you are not always prepared for them.
“I haven’t really had loads of support – obviously (I have) from friends and family and from Dave (McNulty) so I have been lucky with the people around me but in terms of elite sport I don’t think there is a huge amount of support out there.”