Interview: British swimmer Chris Walker-Hebborn

Sports Mole chats to British swimmer Chris Walker-Hebborn, fresh from his England success at the Commonwealth Games.

Two years ago questions were raised over the state of British Swimming after the team failed to reach the medal target at the London Olympics.

Since then, talent has emerged in the pool and the likes of Adam Peaty, Ross Murdoch, Benjamin Proud, Fran Halsall and Siobhan-Marie O'Connor were rewarded for their efforts at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

While the Brits were split across their respective nations, it was clear to see that the sport is in a healthier position, and Chris Walker-Hebborn is one of those swimmers who has given the country a huge boost ahead of Rio 2016.

After winning gold in the 100m backstroke final and Team England gold in the 4x100m medley relay in Scotland, Sports Mole caught up with the 24-year-old to discuss his experience in Glasgow, his struggles in the pool and aims for the future.

A decidedly broody Chris Walker-Hebborn on the podium after winning gold for England in the men's 100m backstroke on July 25, 2014© Getty Images

It's been a few days now since the Commonwealth Games ended. Have you been able to sit down reflect on your performances in the pool?

"Not really. I sat down with coach and I had a little chat about how we think it went and stuff, but obviously we've flown straight out to Spain and we're back in training, and trying to push that to the side for one minute and focus back on the European Championships now, but I'm sure it will start to sink in in a couple of weeks' time once we've finished."

I remember you saying that winning gold in the 100m backstroke final was like sticking two fingers up to people that didn't believe in you. Did you feel that you had a point to prove?

"Yeah, I've had a point to prove for a few years now. Like I said, it's not really gone to plan since 2010 - just underachieving and not really doing what I'm more than capable of. When you're swimming well everyone wants to talk to you, but as soon as you have that bad swim, no-one knows who you are, so this was more just to put myself back on the map and then show all the people that doubted me that I can do it. For the ones that did stick with me through it all, it's just a great relief."

England's Chris Walker-Hebborn ahead of the men's 50m backstroke semi-final on July 26, 2014© Getty Images

You mentioned how you've had struggles during your career. Did it ever get to a point when you questioned whether you were going in the right direction and if this is what you really wanted to do?

"It came to make or break this season. I was talking to my coach the other night and said, going into the Commonwealths, if it went wrong again, I wasn't going to hang around. I can't train for another 300 days just to do the same thing over and over again, so there was a lot of pressure to put on myself to get it right, but after getting it right and doing as well as I did, it brings the love of the sport back and it makes you want to continue and reap the rewards and strive for better. I'll be in here next year and planning on Rio 2016 - just take each year as it comes."

Did you ever have a back-up plan if swimming didn't work out?

"Not really. I had options and things I'd thought about, but it wasn't necessarily a back-up, it was like a last resort because I knew what I could do. I just had to do it and I didn't want to quit. So, when I say it was make or break, losing or doing badly wasn't really an option. I've put too much time and people have put too much time in me as well for it to just go wrong again. So, I'm just glad I got things right this year and it's a chip off the old shoulder and hopefully it's onwards and upwards from here."

What was it that got you interested in the sport in the first place?

"Both my parents used to swim - not at this sort of competitive level, but they were at county, regional sort of level. When I was really young we used to go away to Florida - I used to swim with my armbands on and then all of a sudden I'd just rip them off and jump in the deep end. Dad used to have to come in and save me, but after that I really wanted to learn how to swim and obviously it was a life skill that my parents wanted me to have. I just took to the water better than they thought I would and I just wanted to swim, so it went from there."

England's Chris Walker-Hebborn looks on during the men's 4x100m freestyle relay heat on July 25, 2014© Getty Images

Looking back at the Commonwealth Games, the home nations did really well in the pool. What do you think that says about British swimming at the moment?

"Considering it's been a ropey year and a bit since London and there's been a huge transition in the department etc, after that performance at the Commonwealths I think we did hugely well over the Welsh, English and Scottish contingent. It's putting us in the right direction and hopefully we can keep improving on it and take our experiences into the Worlds and Rio."

A lot of athletes in other sports have said that they look at the Commonwealth Games as preparation for the Olympics. What level of importance do you guys as swimmers give the Commonwealths in your season?

"Obviously it's the lesser of meets, but by no means is it weak. We saw the Australians there which are a huge force to be reckoned with, but for us it was our focus meet. Everything's based on that - our funding, what happens next - it's a huge meet for us in that sense. My coach said to me, 'if you want to think about medalling at Rio, you want to be winning this here'. It's a great two-year stepping stone to Rio, so to come away with two golds, a couple of records and to put myself third or fourth in the world is definitely somewhere I want to be going into the next two years, and plenty to improve on. I've only been in the sprint terms for about 14 months now, so I've got lots to learn and plenty more to come. [I] just have to keep going with it."

There was a bit of talk about the noise in the Athletes' Village - England long-jump champion Greg Rutherford complained about disruptive athletes on Twitter. How was the experience for you?

"To be fair, it was alright - a Games is a Games. You're living in a huge Village environment. Obviously with different sports competing at different times, I'm sure it's difficult, but we were tucked up right at the very back of the Village. As far as I'm aware, I didn't really hear much. You've got some people up when you're trying to sleep, but what can you do? It's like living in a little village. I was whisked out as soon as we finished swimming - I didn't stay for that second week, so as far as I'm aware, it was pretty good. I've got no complaints. It was much better than Delhi for me."

Chris Walker-Hebborn takes off at the start of the men's 100m backstroke final on July 25, 2014© Getty Images

How do you feel about suggestions that the Games were lacking a wow factor?

"I'm sure lots of people had that opinion of it, but at the end of the day, especially in swimming, we have some huge contenders, like Chad le Clos from South Africa and we've got umpteen Australians who are ranked top five, 10 in the world, so it's still a huge meet for us. As long as you go into the meet expecting what you need to do and you go in with your own personal goals, then I suppose it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks."

How are you feeling ahead of next week's European Championships in Berlin?

"I'm feeling pretty good - training's going pretty well. There's no real pressure. I'd like to perform and then back up my performances from the Commonwealths. I'd like to come away with some medals, but this is new territory for me so I kind of have no idea how it's going to go, but things are pointing in the right direction."

Then will your main focus switch to Rio 2016?

"Definitely. We've got Worlds next year, which will be our main focus next year, but in the long term, Rio's the plan, but I like to take each year as it comes."

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Francesca Halsall celebrates winning gold for England in the women's 50m freestyle on July 26, 2014
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