In the latest of our Women In Water series, double Olympic silver medallist Jazz Carlin discusses her swimming roots, success in the pool, supporting the next generation and the importance of body confidence.
Being in the water became a natural feeling from a very young age for Jazz Carlin. With her parents introducing her to the pool as a baby, keen to install a sense of comfort and safety around water, it is perhaps no surprise where the Welsh athlete’s career would take her years later.
“I just used to love being in the water. My favourite time of the week was just going to the pool with my dad every week,” she says.
“Obviously at that age it’s just about being comfortable and feeling safe in the water and trying to learn the basics, so that was really where it all started. Then from there, I joined a local 'learn to swim' club at the age of five. It’s always been a very comfortable place for me, a very happy place, and I have good memories of being in the water from a very young age.”
The European and Commonwealth champion, though, was more than willing to dive into all sorts of other sports too, with one of her earliest Olympic inspirations coming from outside the pool, in the form of one of Great Britain’s iconic performers at Athens 2004.
“Growing up, I loved all sports because my mum and dad wanted me to try as many as possible just to see what I liked, what I didn’t like. I think my earliest Olympic memory was watching Kelly Holmes win the two golds in 2004, but at the time I was only 13. I don’t really know if there was an age where I thought ‘oh I’m going to go into swimming’. It was always a dream watching the olympics, rather than saying I want to be an Olympic swimmer,” adds Jazz.
Four years later, aged 17, Carlin recalls the influence of seeing Rebecca Adlington achieve Double Gold in the Beijing Water Cube – but she places full credit for the shaping of her aspirations with the special people she had around her over the years.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had a lot of influential, special people – all the volunteers, coaches, teachers that really did inspire me every day,” she explains.
Jazz Carlin won two Olympic silver medals at Rio 2016
“I guess they push you to be the best person you can, so I’ve been very lucky with all the coaching over the years and they really inspired me and gave me the confidence, I guess, that I could go on and try to achieve something in the pool as well.
“My earlier swimming coaches from a young age were actually a mix of male and female. It was only when I started to progress and go on to the higher levels that the coaching was more male dominated. But obviously of all of the team I’ve worked around, with physios, nutritionists, psychologists, I’ve had a lot of amazing female influences and I definitely feel I’m just one cog in part of the team that is all working towards that dream together. I’m just very lucky to have had the support team and staff around me to support me on my journey.”
That support was certainly pivotal in a career that took in multiple medals across every senior international level. But when she is pressed for a standout moment in competition, the former Bath National Centre swimmer chooses a swim she believes to be a turning point in her career, when she achieved a feat not managed by a Welsh female swimmer since Pat Beavan in 1974.
“It’s a difficult one really, but probably one of the races that stands out the most is winning 800m Freestyle gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. For me, it was a massive confidence booster. I’d missed out on the London 2012 Olympics through illness, so my confidence was massively knocked and I didn’t know whether I was still able to go on and try to go to the Olympics, whether I still had it in me,” she recalls.
“I think that swim that year and winning the Commonwealth Games and the Europeans within a month of each other really gave me the confidence to think, ‘oh, I can do this, I can go on and compete against the best in the world and win medals internationally’. So I think that was probably one of the turning points and the confidence swim that I needed to go on and win more medals in Rio.”
With brilliant silvers in both the Women's 400m and 800m Freestyle events, Carlin – coached in Bath by David McNulty – in fact became Team GB's first double medallist of the Rio 2016 Games.
Mixed swimming events are due to enter the Olympic programme for the first time in Tokyo, a positive step toward men and women sharing the same sporting platform. Carlin speaks positively of the ways swimming accomplishments already receive parity, joking only that some may not always have the patience to watch the drama unfold in some of the longer events.
“Yes, in swimming there’s obviously male and female events and I do think you get the same kind of support. Well, I believe there’s the same amount of support,” says Jazz.
“Sometimes, for me, doing the distance events rather than the sprints, I feel like people are more interested in the short, sharp events which can be more interesting to watch, whereas the distance contests are a bit longer and often thought of as a bit more boring to watch - but I’ve always felt it’s been very fair in the support received.”
Calling time on her competitive career in early 2019, Carlin has kept close ties with the sport by taking up a role as an athlete mentor for Swim Wales, where she hopes her experiences will help the next generation to flourish.
“Swim Wales have supported me a lot down the years and one of the first meetings I had (following retirement) was with Swim Wales. I wanted to be able to help give back and support in some way,” she adds.
“It’s been great. I’ve been working with development athletes and just going away with them on training camps and competitions, sharing some of my experiences and knowledge and passing it on to them really.
“Whenever I talk to them I think it’s crazy because I used to be one of them sat in a room full of people and now I get to support them in their journey – so, yeah, it’s really rewarding! I feel like I can kind of challenge them to get them to see things in different ways, but also hopefully get them to relate to me in some kind of way and if they can take something away from my journey, or experiences through racing, competition and training then it’s really rewarding for me and something I love doing.”
Beyond passing on tips on how to be the best racer, another topic those that follow Jazz Carlin on social media will know she is passionate about championing is instilling body confidence in people, focusing on owning your differences and simply embracing what you love.
“I started to become aware at school, you start to think ‘oh, I look a bit different, I’ve got bigger shoulders or I’m taller than you’ – but I was more excited to do sport than I was interested in anything else. So I guess I had that feeling of being a bit different and being on a different journey,” recalls the 30-year-old.
Jazz is now working to mentor the next generation of swimmers
“Even since I’ve stopped being a professional swimmer, I’ve naturally been very strong in my upper body and at times I have questioned it or thought I don’t really want to show my shoulders, or I’d cover them up – even to the point where I’d be walking through the airport, and it still happens now, where I go through the security bit and the staff will say to me ‘what sport do you do?’ or ‘you look really strong’.
“However, it’s so important that girls accept how they look. It’s an absolute passion of mine to be able to promote body confidence, and also for people to be able to be confident in your own skin, be able to embrace who you are and what you love and what you enjoy in what you do. For me, my body has been able to do some amazing things in the water swimming, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those, so it’s quite sad for me when I do hear girls that are a bit shy of looking sporty.
“It’s a great thing we should be embracing, to be proud of the bodies we have and to not be afraid.”
Continuing to help those on their swimming journey, Jazz would normally be busy with school and club visits. But with that curbed amid the ongoing pandemic, time has instead allowed her to offer more one-on-one coaching, as well as launching her own swim with Jazz resources.
“When I was a young swimmer, we didn’t necessarily have all the tools we have now in terms of all the physio, the pre-pool, the post-pool, all that kind of stuff. It had kind of started, but now there’s all this information and help, and some of it can really make a difference to someone’s swim journey,” she says.
“For me, it’s not always about finding the fastest swimmer in the pool, it’s about supporting someone to be the best person, the best athlete and all the tools around that. It’s been a bit of a crazy year but I am very passionate about the sport of swimming and giving back support to the next generation coming through, so I love what I do and being able to make a difference.”