SWIMMER Steph Proud today confirms that she will hang up her goggles after finally realising her Olympic dream.
After a decade on the World and European scene, the Chester-le-Street swimmer has vowed to retire at the pinnacle of her sport after qualifying for the Olympics at the third time of asking.
CHRIS YOUNG spoke to Proud on a fleeting visit to the North East after sealing a last-gasp spot at the games a fortnight ago.
THE HOUR hand on the Sunderland Aquatic Centre clock has only just brushed 7am and she’s just faced the lung-busting test of a modest 6,000metre swim.
Yet Steph Proud bristles with enthusiasm at the thought of what awaits her four weeks today.
It’s been a tough road to being an Olympian for the Chester-le-Street backstroker.
Twice Proud has missed out on a spot in the games and just three months ago it looked as if she had sealed an infamous hat-trick.
But now she is London-bound; Team GB kit delivered, training regime finalised and suitcase packed for the Olympic village.
So why, at the peak of her swimming career, is Proud ready to retire?
Speaking with the American twang honed from six years at the University of Florida, Proud seems content with her decision after her morning training session on Wearside during a brief trip back to her native North East.
She has been competing against the best of her peers since winning gold at the European Junior Championships nine years ago and will complete the grand slam of appearances at every major event when she races in the 200m backstroke in London.
And when Proud is finally able to call herself an Olympian, the 23-year-old realises that she can call time on her career with a sense of satisfaction.
Proud said: “I think I’ll probably be done after the summer.
“I’ve had quite a long career and have been around the scene for quite a long time, so I can’t think of a better way to end my career.
“I’ve been to the Worlds, the Europeans and the Commonwealth Games, so I’ve been doing this a while.
“I didn’t think I had to class myself as an Olympian to feel good about my career or about myself.
“But now it’s happened, it’s a really nice way to end my career.
“I’m proud of myself and it’s taken a long time to say that.
“And to be involved in this one at a home games, where people who are not necessarily interested in sport will be wrapped up in it all, makes it even more special.”
Proud’s retirement could feasibly have been confirmed in March after her Olympic dream turned into a nightmare.
She finished second behind rival Lizzie Simmonds at the British trials despite achieving the Olympic qualifying time.
After missing out on a place at both the Athens and Beijing games, Proud thought her final chance of the Olympics had gone and returned to Florida seemingly resigned to her fate.
But she re-grouped and at last month’s ASA British Championships, in Sheffield, won the 200m in two minutes 9.4 seconds – 1.5 seconds inside the qualifying time.
“The first month after the trials in March was really difficult mentally,” said Proud.
“But then, when I got back into it, I knew I would have regretted it if I hadn’t given it everything.
“Now it’s paid off.
“It was hard to think I had to go through everything again though.
“The selection policy is quite complicated. I could have technically come back and swam slower in Sheffield than I had done in March as I’d already done the qualifying time twice. I just had to win.”
Proud credits the culture of competition in Florida for helping her banish the blues after a third successive setback at the Olympic trials.
She first made the move across the Atlantic six years ago after a brief spell at the University of Loughborough.
Proud quickly bought into the American system of collegiate swim meets and her times began to improve with the University of Florida’s Gator Swim Club.
“In Florida, I just love going training,” she said.
“The people around are so into swimming that I just love the atmosphere, I love the culture.
“Then it’s good when I come back because I’m at the centre of the British team and I can train with them.
“Kevin Renshaw, who was one of my coaches at Chester-le-Street, is now one of the Olympic coaches at Loughborough, so it’s quite nice to have someone who’s known me since I was 12.
“When I moved to America, it kind of opened up this whole new world for me.
“It was fresh and exciting, so I do attribute that to helping me keep going.
“They’ve somehow managed to turn swimming into a team sport.
“It wasn’t that tough to make the decision in the first place. I had a lot of people here helping me make a decision – I wasn’t swimming as well as I’d have liked and, to be honest, I had nothing to lose.
“It was kind of a gradual improvement. I hadn’t set a personal best for about two years before I went to the States.
“I missed out on the Olympics in 2008, but it was the first meet in two years when I went home after doing a best time.”
So when the goggles and trunks are dried out for the last time, what does Proud plan on doing? Get back in the pool of course.
Proud hopes to return to Florida to do a post-graduate degree and wants to move into coaching – something she never thought would be her destiny.
“I’ve graduated from university, so now I’m applying for residency,” she added.
“I’d like to go back to uni over there, I’m not quite sure what in yet, maybe a masters.
“At the moment, I’m very happy there, so I’d quite like to stay.
“I never thought I’d want to remain in swimming. I thought I’d walk away from the sport without thinking about it.
“But the closer I get to it, the more I think that I’ve got a lot of wisdom to pass on.
“I know the sport so well and it’s in the family. My dad (Ian) is involved in a lot of local swim meets and my brother (David) coaches in Australia.
“It’s been a big part of my life.”