Spofforth’s fresh start for Olympic year

England's Gemma Spofforth prepares for the Women's 100m Backstroke on day two of the 2010 Commonwealth Games at the Dr. S.P.M. Aquatics Complex in Delhi, India
England's Gemma Spofforth prepares for the Women's 100m Backstroke on day two of the 2010 Commonwealth Games at the Dr. S.P.M. Aquatics Complex in Delhi, India

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Gemma Spofforth is used to winning.

But it’s coming to terms with the losses in her life which could hold the key to Olympic glory this year.

Portsmouth Northsea’s world champion has suffered enough pain to batter the most resilient of souls into submission.

After nearly being forced to quit swimming after being diagnosed with pancreatitis, Spofforth had to deal with the devastating death of her mother Lesley to bowel cancer in 2007.

Then came the loss of her father’s partner, June, last year to the same illness.

In between those tragedies, her successes form an amazing testament to a drive and will to succeed which knows no bounds.

A world record and title in Rome three years ago saw the dream targeted with her mother come true.

It also looked to speak of a talent which would reign supreme in the backstroke for years to come.

But the grieving process had been lost amid a steely focus in delivering a legacy in her mother’s name for the 24-year-old.

When it arrived, it took Spofforth to a dark place which so nearly led to her choosing to turn her back on the sport which has been her life.

Emerging from the pits of that low, and the loss of form which came with it, has been a rite of passage which proved a testing journey.

But it has also seen a woman equipped with a perspective and understanding of self which has been her making.

‘From 2007 I was able to grow from the death of my mum until I got a world record in 2009,’ said Spofforth as she reflected on her voyage of discovery.

‘I think challenges are put in your way to make you strong and create that drive in you.

‘You can overcome hurdles and achieve things.

‘It was a test, but what I’d been through never sunk in at first.

‘I powered through it, went to the funeral, went to Florida and the NCAAs (American collegiate championships) and the Olympic trials, all things which that were goals of mine.

‘They were goals my mum put in me and we created together.

‘So, for me, it was huge to have that focus. It wasn’t until the summer after that I thought: “Okay, this is something I said I wouldn’t let affect me, but it’s really affecting me”.

‘It wasn’t until 2009 when I was really able to pull off what I wanted.

‘I managed to swim well even if it wasn’t what I wanted, but then I was in a very low place.

‘It’s always going to be there, though. I’m writing a book about it now. It’s called Mourning, Medals and Men.

‘It’s going to talk swimming, about the death of my mum, it’s going to talk about the men I used to get through the void in my heart.

‘It’s something I want to portray to people who have been through what I’ve been through, and let them know it’s okay to go through these things. It’s normal.

‘Not everyone will feel like I did, but it’s that emotion – and that raw emotion – that I want to show people, and tell them it’s okay to feel it and you will be okay afterwards.

‘To know I can be happy still is the biggest thing for me.’

As the first shoots of a new year begin to grow, Spofforth can now put to bed a 2011 that was her very own ‘annus horribilis’.

A year which opened with her being dragged from her established training base in Florida to Australia, descended into the low of the death of her father’s partner after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Then came the nightmare defence of her world title in China, where a bout of foot poisoning and diarrhoea wrecked her hopes of success.

To add injury to insult, Spofforth then broke her toe, nose and needed 15 stitches after a bike accident following the event in Shanghai.

It all added to a period which left the girl who used to train at Victoria and HMS Temeraire questioning whether to carry on in her sport.

‘It’s been challenging,’ said Spofforth as she looked back on a year to forget.

‘First, I wasn’t allowed in America because I haven’t got my green card yet.

‘So I had to go to Australia until trials with different coaching and a different atmosphere.

‘It was something which felt foreign to me.

‘I came back for the trials and my dad’s girlfriend died from cancer during that.

‘That was hard. It also brought back memories from my mum.

‘The motivation for swimming was lost somewhere in between all of it.

‘I wanted it to be there but it wasn’t, not like in years past.

‘It was definitely challenging to work out whether I wanted to swim or not.

‘Then I got food poisoning in Shanghai, so the whole year combined was disappointing,

‘It’s not a year I will look back on with fond memories.’

Spofforth’s soul searching over her future has taken her down an avenue which handed back control of her destiny after all her troubles.

The realisation the sport she made her name in is central to her life but not everything she is has released the European champion from the shackles which previously held her down.

It’s a mindset which is now propelling her towards the Olympic trials in March with greater purpose than ever.

Beyond that, who knows? Spofforth is aware an attitude that being top of the rostrum at the Aquatics Centre at Olympic Park later this year doesn’t define her, may be the very same one which carries her there.

She said: ‘I was close to quitting. Close enough to know if I ever feel like that again then that will be it.

‘At the end of last year I decided it will be all or nothing.

‘I’m going to give swimming everything for another year and see what I can get out of it.

‘I’m going to give it more than I’ve ever given it.

‘It’s going to be about that enjoyment of swimming – that choice I made to come back.

‘It’s not something I was forced to do, it’s something I wanted.

‘I could quit, but this is something I want to do – not something I have to do.

‘The 2012 Olympics being in London was key, but so was the fact I could choose.

‘I was at that point where I could quit but I thought I have the choice.

‘It was whatever was good for me. My friends and family made me realise that.

‘Swimming isn’t something that makes people like me. It’s not something that makes me me.

‘It’s something that goes alongside me.

‘It’s that balance which lets me know I can do swimming and have other things in my life. It’s not a burden.

‘It’s that balance which allows me to be the person I am.

‘I’m not Gemma the swimmer – I’m Gemma.’