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‘I wasn’t planning to stop swimming… It was a pretty abrupt decision’

Irish Olympian Sycerika McMahon chats to The42 about her decision to retire from the sport.

Irish Olympian Sycerika McMahon announced her retirement from swimming earlier this year.
Irish Olympian Sycerika McMahon announced her retirement from swimming earlier this year.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

SYCERIKA MCMAHON IS in Texas but she might as well be home.

“I think it’s probably about the same temperature in Ireland as it is here, which is really surprising, because it doesn’t usually get this cold,” she laughs. “It’s a bit of a shock right now.”

She won’t be going back to Ireland this Christmas, instead spending it in Austin with a friend and her family. In fact, she says she has been properly home (not including layovers) just twice since securing a scholarship and going over to study in Texas A&M University in 2013, such are the sacrifices she’s had to make for this new and exciting life.

Despite graduating last week, she won’t be home anytime soon either, having just received a green card, which allows her to live and work permanently in the US.

2017 has been a momentous year in McMahon’s life for other reasons too.

“This was an unexpected and difficult choice, as it is not easy to give up something you have done your whole life,” she said, in a statement last summer announcing her retirement from swimming.

“My sport took me to some unimaginable highs and it’s been an honour for me to represent my country all over the world.

I look back on my career as a multi-national record holder, multi-European medallist, Worlds semi-finalist and an Olympian with pride. However, I always wanted and felt I was capable of a lot more.”

Many were surprised that, at just 22, McMahon had chosen to step away from the sport.

As a teenager, the Down native was a prodigy. In 2012, she became Ireland’s youngest ever swimmer to win a medal at a major event, breaking the Irish 50m Breaststroke record in the process, as she picked up silver at the European Championships in Debrecen.

Previously, she had picked up a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle at the 2010 European Junior Swimming Championships in Helsinki, breaking the Irish junior record in doing so. During the same competition a year later in Belgrade, she won gold in the 50m breaststroke and the 400m freestyle, as well as silver in the 200m freestyle.

The high point of her career was undoubtedly competing at the 2012 Olympics, though it didn’t go as well as she had hoped. McMahon came 26th overall in the 100m breaststroke and 22nd overall in the 200m individual medley.

“Sycerika is a very competitive individual and is very, very disappointed,” Swim Ireland boss Peter Banks told reporters at the time.

She came here and set herself some high expectations. We want them to set those high expectations but sometimes you have to learn how to deal with that and she is still very young and still learning.”

From there, she continued to show great promise, earning a bronze medal at the 2012 European Short Course Swimming Championships in Chartres.

McMahon also impressed after moving to America. The Texas A&M University website notes of her maiden year in the US: “Had an explosive first season, jumping straight into the record books. The SEC Championships, McMahon swam the 100 breast in 59.35 to become the second fastest Aggie in the event in history, she went on to swim the 200 breast in 2:10:48 for the fourth fastest all-time swim, and finally, McMahon swam the 200 IM in 1:58.08 to rank 10th on the all-time record book.”

London Olympic Games - Day 2 Ireland's Sycerika McMahon after her heat of the Women's 100m Breaststroke at the Aquatics Centre, London, on the second day of the London 2012 Olympics. Source: Martin Rickett

However, some disappointing results followed. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, McMahon missed out on a spot in the 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley finals. Afterwards, her disappointment was clear.

“I plan to do a lot better there,” she told the BBC.

“I know I’m capable of times which are so much better than what I’m doing right now.”

Yet ultimately, the talented swimmer failed to recapture the form she had shown in her younger days, prompting McMahon to retire via a statement on Instagram last June.

“It’s definitely been an eventful year,” she tells The42. “A lot of stuff has changed. A lot of things have happened that I didn’t really foresee happening.

I didn’t really expect to retire from swimming so soon or at this point.”

She pauses, before jokingly adding: “I guess I did see graduation coming.”

And was retirement a difficult decision or a straightforward one?

“I always planned to give myself one more year for the Commonwealth Games in 2018. I’d never really thought of retiring just after SECs (South Eastern Conference Championships) at that point. It wasn’t really expected in my mind.

“I wasn’t planning to stop swimming. It just came to me. It was a pretty abrupt decision honestly. But I definitely think it was the right one. I just had some other stuff going on, other challenges I’ve been dealing with in other aspects of my life, I think those kind of took priority.

Over the years, I had ever so slightly fallen out of love with swimming, just a little bit. It kind of all brought things in perspective. It definitely wasn’t an easy choice. And I’ve spent several months questioning myself: ‘Was that the right choice that I made at the time?’ But I think for me personally, it was.”

Looking at it from the outside, it may seem as if McMahon stopped when she had barely started in the sport, but the Down native had been swimming competitively since the age of 11. 11 years in one of the most mentally taxing sports can take its toll — even legendary swimmers such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Ian Thorpe have found it hard going and endured various well-publicised difficulties outside the pool.

McMahon, though, must still be proud of her record-breaking achievements, some of which took place while she was still a Portaferry schoolgirl.

“I am (proud),” she says. “I’ve had a lot of great achievements, when I was much younger anyway. The last few years for me haven’t been too great, if I’m honest. I think I was definitely capable of doing a lot more in the sport. (I hoped to) push through and keep going for a couple of years, but it never really happened.

“I loved training. I loved it so much. But gradually over time, the results didn’t really come.”

Sycerika McMahon Sycerika McMahon with her bronze medal won at the European Short Course Swimming Championships in Chartres, France in 2012. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While on the one hand relieved to get away from a sport that was increasingly becoming a grind for her, there are aspects the Irish Olympian misses now that she no longer has to deal with the sacrifices that come with being an elite athlete.

“We were training between three to five hours a day and I loved putting in the work. I loved feeling accomplished. It gave me something to really look forward to every day. Practice really was my favourite part of the day.

(The Olympics) was a great experience. I’d just turned 17 and there were all these famous people walking around. Usain Bolt, Andy Murray, all these big stars. That was great to be part of.”

But going from to the highs of competing in the Olympics back to normality is not always easy. British diver Tom Daley, for instance, a year after winning bronze at the 2012 Olympics, was close to quitting the sport on account of the inner turmoil he was experiencing. McMahon also says she found the transition difficult.

“No one really prepared me for it,” she says. “I found it pretty difficult. Several months after competing in the Olympics, I found it really hard looking back on it.

“I had one year left in school in Belfast. So much time had been put into the lead up to the Olympics.

“You didn’t really realise at the time, but my whole mind was focused on swimming and going to London.

“The Olympics as a whole only lasted three weeks and I only swam two days. The closing ceremony was after that.

Once it was all over, it was like: ‘Wow, all that hard work and effort and dedication. The big event itself is over.’ I know there’s an Olympics every four years, but at that time, it just seemed like everything was done.

“It was kind of hard for me to go back into school and the normal way of life and to go back into training and try to pump myself up for the next cycle of swimming.

“I did find it really difficult, but I had a really good team around me. I was in a really good environment. That probably made the transition easier for me. And I was able to get myself up and going for European Short Course just after that.”

Her move to America on a sports scholarship while still a teenager was also understandably difficult and a little daunting initially.

“I (was used to) the same environment for a really long time, so I just wanted a complete change. I definitely got that. Coming to the States was an amazing experience, but it was completely different from home in every single way possible.

“I definitely did experience some homesickness, which I was surprised at. I was all excited about going and then I found myself thinking: ‘I really want to go back home to something I know.’ Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone a little to get the best experience you can.”

Sport - 2014 Commonwealth Games - Day Five McMahon pictured during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The searing heat of Texas was not something McMahon was overly accustomed to, nor were other aspects of her newfound home.

“The people and the way of life is different. Society and expectations as a whole are very different.

“It differed in terms of swimming. It was the fact that we did so much more than I was used to. I really enjoyed the challenge of doing more work because I think I needed that. But I definitely struggled.

I did weights back home in Belfast for a couple of years before leaving — that wasn’t too hard. But we did a lot of running and dry-land exercises that were very intense and I’d just never done anything like that in my life. I remember in my Freshman year struggling to deal with that. It was like: ‘Wow, I just never did anything like this back home.’

“It became one of my favourite things to do later on in terms of our schedule. I enjoyed it, but the first year, I hated it, because I just got my ass kicked all the time. It was just running in the football stadium in the 110-plus Fahrenheit weather, which is just sweltering.”

Yet McMahon managed to adapt. It’s now four and a half years since she moved to America, studying Business while simultaneously pursuing her athletic endeavours. It is starting to feel like home, even if it is not certain exactly where her future will lie. Her next focus will be on getting a master’s degree and then a job.

Nearly eight months have elapsed since the 22-year-old quit swimming and she says this new situation still feels slightly surreal at times.

I never was one of those people who was envious about how much of my life was dedicated to swimming. I kind of accepted that I wouldn’t live a normal teenager’s life. But it’s not something that I always craved. I guess you do miss out on things growing up.

“I had to be in bed exceptionally early. I got up in the morning exceptionally early to travel an hour to Belfast each day to swim before school. So your whole life looks very different if you’re going to be an athletic scholar essentially in comparison to when you’re a person who doesn’t base your life around sport in school.

“I have all this time (since retiring), but I really have thrown myself into my studies a lot more than even usual. I find that really beneficial in the transition period because I wasn’t sitting around completely useless doing nothing.

“I kept myself busy by really trying to focus on college and getting those top grades to graduate in a good position.

“I guess I can enjoy the other aspects of life. I do look back and I do miss a lot of things about swimming. I miss being extremely fit — I consciously have to go to the gym now, whereas before I didn’t have to worry about it. It was just a way of life back then. But now, I’m like: ‘Oh, I have to go to the gym today’… It’s an adjustment process.”

Sycerika McMahon A file photo from 2012: An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD presents the Sportswoman of the Month award for November to Sycerika McMahon (Swimming), alongside Kevin O'Sullivan, Editor Irish Times and Kieran Mulvey, Chairman of the Irish Sports Council. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Our conversation concludes with a chat about a Guardian article from last February by the journalist Tom Dart, which McMahon retweeted on her official Twitter account. The title of the piece perfectly sums up what it’s about: ‘Loneliness, isolation and pressure: the inner demons of elite swimming,’ as the article contains some illuminating interviews with athletes discussing the intense nature of sport at the highest level.

“I can definitely relate to a lot of things said (in the article),” McMahon adds. “A lot of that stuff remains very unspoken in sport.

No one really prepares you or tells you how difficult it can be. It goes very unspoken because sport can be brutal and you have to prepare yourself for that sometimes.

“You’re going to get a lot of downs, you’re going to get ups too, but it’s about how you deal with the ups and downs. It can be a struggle for a lot of people and it’s just about trying to make the best of the situation and push through if you can.

“I thought it was a very good article and I definitely wanted to retweet it for anyone else that might be in sport and feeling a little down.

“Swimming is very much a sport of isolation. Over here in America, they try to make it team-oriented but at the end of the day, swimming is a very solitary sport, because it’s just you in the pool and you against the clock.

It’s just you swimming up and down every day staring at a black line. No one’s talking to you, it’s just you. And if you’re in your own head and not hearing positive things and positive voices, then it can be very difficult, because you’re just kind of trapped in your own thoughts. And if they’re not positive (thoughts), it’s not going to be a good time (that you finish with).

“When I was younger, I never had to worry about any of that, because you’re just so excited about everything. You just want to excel and get better. But as I got older, I experienced some of those challenges.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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