Swimming comebacks. Why are there so many?

Ian Thorpe after finishing his comeback race in Singapore. He came second in his 100IM heat.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about sporting comebacks and why there have been quite a few in swimming, most notably Australia’s Ian Thorpe and America’s Janet Evans. What makes them do it?

The cynical might say it’s the opportunity to make more money through (fairly) lucrative sponsorship deals, but I’m really not so sure. Few swimmers it seems are that money motivated because let’s face it there are very few in the sport who are seriously wealthy.

Instead, I think the answer lies partly in the desire in the swimmers to prove themselves once again at the top level – in essence to show themselves and others they’ve still got it. Of course this isn’t at all easy, at least according to former Olympic champion Mark Spitz (right) who tried – unsuccessfully – to make a comeback for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics aged 41, 20 years after scooping 7 gold medals at the Munich Olympics.

“The world moves on and it is quite difficult,” he told The Telegraph at the Laureus World Sports awards conference in London.

“I don’t think as an athlete you ever forget how to train but what you really lose is how to race against your competitors.

“I knew how to compete against those I had been competing against for years. When I went to the pool I truly believed they were wondering who was going to get second as opposed to who was going to beat me.

“By leaving the sport, the door was open for everyone else to jockey up to the No1 gig and so when I re-entered the sport 17 years later I was not only yesterday’s news I was trying to find my own way back.”

Why do swimmers retire so young?

These are all good points that Spitz makes, but I think in some ways we need to be asking a different question to fully understand why swimmers – in particular – want to make a comeback. And that’s why did they quit the sport in the first place?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I reckon one factor may be the gruelling nature of the sport that leaves top athletes exhausted, burnt out, before they are at their physical prime. Kids at swimming clubs up and down the UK who show any promise are training several times a week (up to 20 hours of swimming) by the age of 10, typically getting up to train at 5am before school.

It’s no wonder so many of them quit the sport by the time they are teenagers and many more who go on to achieve international success retire early – too early in my opinion. I’m not the only one to think this. In an interesting piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, three times Olympian Kieren Perkins argues that the sport’s administrators often fail to look after their athletes as well as they should.

“I think what we see with the comebacks is that swimming as a sport is very deficient in managing older athletes,” he said. “We push our kids very early, very hard, for a very long time and when they start to get a bit of age and a little bit of free will the first and most obvious thing you want to do is get away.

”It’s not a physical impediment, it’s an emotional one … I’ve never seen a real medical reason why they can’t keep going and if anything, conventional wisdom says that for blokes especially it’s in your early to mid-30s when you really hit your physical peak.”

In theory that’s music to the ears of Ian Thorpe who is making a comeback at the grand old age of 29 though, like Spitz, Perkins thinks he’s going to find it tough going to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.  ”I think at this point you’d have to say that he’s obviously got some challenges ahead of him,” the 38-year-old said.

Meanwhile, last week I read the sad news that one of our brightest young prospects, Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, is quitting swimming to concentrate on her studies aged just 17. Team GB’s first black female swimmer, Achieng seemed to indicate that the major reason for her decision was the lack of support from British Swimming.

“It is a brutal sport and horrible to go through the plateau when things aren’t going right. There was a huge lack of support for athletes not doing well.

“So many needed attention that it just went against British Swimming’s ethos of this being a long-term sport. But I’m not bitter. I just got to the stage where I got fed up. My stroke was changed and I simply lost rhythm and strength in my legs.”

Cassie Patten (right) quit swimming last year, citing long term injury. Will she be back?

Similarly, last year Cassie Patten – the Olympic open water 10km bronze medal – called time on her swimming career at the age of 25, citing a long-term shoulder injury. Even 22 year old Rebecca Adlington has hinted she may quit after the London 2012 Olympic games.

In other sports, especially football where money is obviously much more plentiful,  the athletes are given time to develop both mentally and physically with many making a career of it until their mid 30s.

But swimming, it seems, is a much less forgiving sport in many ways. To me it’s no wonder that so many swimmers who quit in their early twenties, even their teens, try to stage a comeback a few years later. The real shame is that very few of them will make it, even though many of them are yet to reach their physical peak.