Swimmer Jazz Carlin talks to MARION SAUVEBOIS about her journey to Olympic glory, from childhood dream, through gruelling training, debilitating illness and being grumpy in the mornings to winning two silver medals at Rio 2016

FOR the millions tuning in to Rio’s 400m freestyle final, it was another silver medal to add to Team GB’s growing haul. But for Jazz Carlin, gripping the pool’s edge, anxiously squinting at the screen to make out her time, her first Olympic win was a victory of mind over body - one which she had all but given up on after a bout of glandular fever curtailed her London 2012 dreams.

“It was something I had been dreaming of for such a long time. Missing out on the home Olympics was probably the toughest thing,” she confides. “When you give everything to your sport and don’t get the results you want, it’s hard to pick yourself back up. But I knew I still had a lot to give to my sport.

“When I touched the wall, to see I had the silver medal, it was a shock that I had done it. I knew I was perfectly capable of racing well. It was just about making sure I could do it on the day. But you know nothing is certain. You never know what anyone is going to do. All you can do is put on the best performance for you.”

As she dove into the pool, her niggling nerves made way for calm and unbridled excitement, she recalls. By the time she clinched her second silver in the 800m freestyle race, she had well and truly drawn a line under the years of self-doubt, uncertainty and frustration.

“The ultimate dream was to get to the Olympics so when it came round I wanted it to be the best experience that I have ever had. To come away with two silvers, I couldn’t be happier. It’s a bit crazy to think it’s come and gone really, but it’s been one of the best experiences of my life.”

And yet for all her resilience, unwavering resolve and personal sacrifices, her return to the pool - after seeing perhaps her one and only shot at an Olympic medal slip through her fingers - was far from seamless. Her disappointing fourth place at the World Championships in Barcelona in 2013 “was a low point”.

Back on track and in full physical form at last, she claimed double gold at the European Championships in Berlin in 2014. But when she sustained a rib injury putting her Rio hopes in jeopardy, she saw her dream ripped away once more.

Determined not to let another setback scupper her chances, she doggedly pushed through the pain to compete at the European Championships - her last major event before Brazil.

“It just knocked me back and I didn’t know if I would be at the Olympics,” she explains. "When you’re an athlete an injury or illness is so tough, it’s out of your control. You can look after yourself but if your body is telling you that it’s had enough and can’t go on, it’s really hard to keep going and keep believing that in end you will be able to achieve your dreams.

“It had taken me a while to get back in the pool after the home Olympics,” she goes on. “Sport can be a very harsh world. I’m so glad I kept going four years ago to come back even stronger in Rio.”

No stranger to being the underdog, her impressive comeback mirrors her unlikely journey from keen but average swimmer to decorated Olympian. When she started her first classes at the Health Hydro at the age of five, no-one, she insists, would have tipped the little girl “strutting along the poolside in her Princess Jasmine swimming costume” for Olympic glory.

Even as she reached adolescence, her technique left to be desired. Though what she lacked for in skill, she more than made up for in enthusiasm and drive, she points out with a laugh.

“As soon as I was allowed in the pool, my dad would throw me in it,” she says fondly. “Even when I was young, swimming lessons was favourite time of the week. It was so much fun. Unfortunately the small pool has closed down now but I have amazing memories of being there,” enthuses the swimmer, who has a peculiar habit of storing her hard-earned medals in socks, scattered around her Bradford on Avon home.

“But it wasn’t always natural to me. I was never the best in my age group. I was never the one with the best technique or that was the fastest but I always wanted to improve and get better and keep having fun. It’s not until I started really practising that I managed to get the results.”

At just 16, she moved to Swansea to train with coach Bud McAllister.

The prospect of one day qualifying for the Olympics was never far from her mind as she gave up her childhood and left her home to pursue a professional career. And yet she dithered, second-guessing her ability and chances at a medal.

“It started off as a dream as young child but I had no idea if I was good enough,” says the 26-year-old candidly. “I’m glad that I stuck with it and that I never stopped trying. It’s about having that drive and determination to keep going when your body is telling you no, and your mind is saying it’s had enough. There has to be this once voice that you listen to that keeps saying, ‘You can do this.’ It’s not just about the physical things but the mental strength as well.”

Even as she weathered the ebb and flow of the unforgiving world of professional swimming, she never once lost her sense of childhood excitement and wonder at the sight of the pool.

Keen to share her love for the sport, she recently teamed up with Yakult to encourage children, and adults especially, to take up swimming – and, like her, “stick with it”.

“People learn to swim when they are young – it’s part of growing up and learning to be safe in the water - but they don’t carry on,” she sighs audibly. “It’s not just great exercise, it’s fun. It is so important that you get something out of what you do and enjoy it; and once you start seeing the benefits and feel fitter you will definitely feel more motivated.”

Her passion for swimming is clear for anyone to see but even she has her limits. The former Wootton Bassett School pupil freely admits she has to dig deep at times to find slivers of joy in her relentless training schedule – particularly the prompt 6.30am starts.

“I have never been a morning person,” she owns up. “I’m always a bit grumpy and a bit of a zombie in the morning. Once I jump in that cold pool in the morning it soon wakes me up,” she quips. “You have your morning session, than you have massage or nutrition meetings or physio. After the afternoon session, I’m the gym for an hour. It’s not easy. But, if it was easy, everyone would do it and be at the Olympics. You have to push yourself; even when it’s hard, even when it’s freezing outside and you have to de-ice your car to head to the pool. That’s what makes it so special: you’ve given up a lot and dedicated your life to what you love.”