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Freya Anderson: ‘I hated swimming lessons. I was screaming and crying’

by ZwemZa on April 17th, 2019

Freya Anderson won two relay gold medals at last year’s European Championships and won the British 200m freestyle title on Tuesday. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Freya Anderson was never destined to stay buried in the crowd. Tall and red-haired, anonymity would be an impractical trick to pull off, even if she were not increasingly prominent in the role of British swimming’s Next Big Thing.

A label pinned due to talent, says the 18-year-old from Merseyside, is one she can live with. “But I got teased for being a redhead,” she reveals. “And almost as much for being tall, which was tough. I got teased a lot. But once I started getting more confidence in the pool, I was more confident out of it. Swimming really helped me come to terms with that.”

With her schooldays soon to end once she has concluded her impending A-levels in geography and art, Anderson is primed to accelerate rapidly away from her former tormenters. The world junior champion of 2017 in the 100m freestyle, she burnished her reputation still further with two relay golds at last August’s European Championships in Glasgow.

With world championships this summer, she returned to the Tollcross pool this week for the British trials and justified the hype by winning the 200m freestyle on Tuesday, with the 50m to follow on Thursday and her favoured 100m 24 hours later. The high-performance aquatic adjudicators tasked with forecasting her future enthuse about what she might achieve. Less than 18 months out from Tokyo’s Olympics, her trajectory is intriguingly upward.

This all came out from very unpromising beginnings, she confesses. Anderson was never a water baby. “I remember the swimming lessons I had in sixth year,” she says. “You had to take them. I used to hate it. Somehow, I was promoted to the local club. But I was screaming and crying because I didn’t want to go.”

She grins at the recollection. “I guess things have changed. I started off pretty nervous. But I started to get more comfortable. And then moving to Ellesmere College changed me completely.”

Near the Welsh border, the boarding school has been her home from home, each Sunday night to Saturday morning, since she was 14. Its four-lane pool anticipates her arrival each morning by 6.30am. “I think that’s quite late,” she laughs. Not for your average teen.

The swimming programme based there, the Titans, has produced several international swimmers in recent times, including Cassie Wild, Joel Thompson, Conor Ferguson and Chloe Golding. As much as the regime has been effective, its location may be similarly conducive. “It’s in the middle of nowhere and you don’t do much,” Anderson relates. “So all I can do is school, train or hang out.”

Its nurturing environs were at their most valuable when Anderson was compelled to do much less. Two years ago, a sudden jolt in her back brought a pain that refused to subside. Scans revealed inflamed joints on her spine. She swam onward for a time, picked up medals, but was paddling with ever more frustration against the tide. “There were a lot of tears,” she says. “A big lot of tears.”

Being confined to dry land during her rehab almost broke her spirit. Swimming had not been this joyless since she was first ordered to take a plunge. “It definitely made me a better person though, learning not to take those hard steps for granted again.

“I had to watch my teammates crush it and that made me desperately want to be in that pool. So any time now when I feel tired, I think: ‘It’s just over a year ago that you weren’t swimming at all – so get your act together.’ It all made me a lot stronger.”

Freya Anderson says of July’s world championships: ‘I’ve still got a lot of learning to do. I don’t like to think about medals.’
Freya Anderson says of July’s world championships: ‘I’ve still got a lot of learning to do. I don’t like to think about medals.’ Photograph: Allan McKenzie/

Her friends kept her sane then and now, she says. When she turned 18 last month, a relatively sedate meal was organised so she could be fresh for training at dawn. “No partying until after this week,” she says. Is an appropriate belated celebration planned then? “I’ve a few days off,” Anderson beams, telling us all we need to know.

Subsequently, however, energies will shift from the dance floor to logging the kilometres required to make a splash in the South Korean city of Gwangju in July. There, the world’s best will make their own assessments of her threat and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte, and Swedish speedster Sarah Sjöström will require an extra gear shift.

Just inside the top 20 of the world rankings by the end of last year, Anderson maintains it would require an unexpected leap to challenge for the podium three months hence. “I’m not putting any expectations on myself for worlds,” she says. “I’m still quite young I guess. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do. It’s about going there, seeing what I can do and getting more experience. I don’t like to think about medals. I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

Even so, she hears the chatter. And knows that 19-year-olds have rocketed from the outside lane to become Olympic champions before. “It’s a fun place to be in. When I was little, I never thought it would be me. I always wanted it but you never imagine that’ll happen do you?”

Mark Woods | The Guardian

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