I met Stephanie at the start of another very busy day in her role as a Speedo Ambassador for a masterclass at Talise Fitness, Mina A’Salam in Dubai, followed by the most amazing healthy breakfast I’ve ever had at Talise Café, coordinated by Chef Gabi.
The former Olympic swimmer was here for the final leg of the 2015 Fina/airweave Swimming World Cup 2015 last weekend where Speedo sponsored Olympic gold medalist swimmers such as Missy Franklin and Nathan Adrian who were not only competing for an attractive prize purse, but also gunning to make qualifying times for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Stephanie began swimming at a local club in Durham at the age of 5. Her father had been a competitive swimmer in his youth. Her first major competition was for the Great Britain junior team when she was 12 and she went on to win 9 medals at the European Junior championships. As a senior, Stephanie was a finalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a semi-finalist at the 2011 World Championships. Stephanie also competed in the 2009 World University Games in Belgrade where she won the gold medal. At 18, Stephanie moved to the United States where she trained at the University of Florida for the 2012 London Olympics at which she proudly achieved 9th place (by a fraction of a second) in front of a home crowd.
Stephanie continued her life in Florida and obtained her master’s degree from the University of Florida. While studying she coached at Gator Swim Club working primarily with junior competitive swimmers between the ages of 14-18. Stephanie was also the assistant team manager for the Florida Gators swimming and diving teams.
Stephanie began working at Speedo International in January 2015. An athlete’s career at the top is a short one, particularly so for swimmers – Stephanie retired from competitive swimming at the age of 24 – so I was interested to hear about her new role with Speedo.
Q. As a competitive swimmer your day would have been dominated by some 5 hours in the pool. Did you do any other complementary fitness training?
Swimming is a very demanding sport training-wise. It takes a lot out of you physically, emotionally and mentally. You have to commit 100% to what you are doing which means making sacrifices in your social life. I also did 3 hours per week of strength work and 3 hours per week general fitness work which could consist of abs and running.
Q. How did you make the transition into retirement?
I knew London would be my last race, I had decided that months beforehand and felt “at peace” with it. I completely stopped swimming for a long period of time before deciding to go back to swimming 3 times a week. That was something I needed to do because I wanted to not because I had to. What I do now is light fitness and nowhere near the intensity of training.
Q. An athlete’s career at the top is short. What made you decide that this was the job for you and how were you chosen?
In order to have a NCAA* scholarship you have to be considered an amateur swimmer so cannot be supported by a sponsor. Having said this my university was a Speedo sponsored team. I became interested in the business side of sport in the lead up to the London Olympic Games. After the Olympics I decided to pursue a Masters in Business Management and I did some volunteering in the athletic marketing department at my university. Sports marketing ended up being such a great fit for me as the “on deck” aspect allowed me to use the experience and knowledge I had gained as a swimmer.
Q. What sort of things are you involved in throughout the year in your role as a Speedo ambassador?
I like to see myself as a link between the athletes and the brand, I support from an “on deck” point which means being physically present at many major meets. When I travel I try and see at least one cool thing in each city: that way you remember more than just the swimming. I’m lucky enough to have met people from all over the world during my travels to I enjoy catching up with friends all over the world. Other roles include speaking: for example, the Masters Conference is at the end of this month and I’m going to talk about my experience as a swimmer and hopefully how to stay in the sport once you have transitioned to professional life.
Q. What would a typical day as an ambassador be like?
Every day is different. When I’m in the office we are planning ahead for the upcoming meets and making sure our sponsored teams and swimmers are getting what they need. There’s lots of travel involved also. During the busy racing season it’s like a new country every week, networking with potential markets and swimmers and seeding products and receiving feedback. As I mentioned before I have lots of friends all over the world so I try as best as I can to catch up with them in my free time.
Q. What do you do to relax?
I like to be outdoors. I like hiking and walks more than being in a gym. To make up from all the travelling I sleep A LOT when I’m home.
Q. Do you have any advice for parents of talented swimmers? Is there a route they should be following to get the best chance for their child?
Let the kids be kids, they’re supposed to really enjoy what they’re doing. Supporting unconditionally is the best thing they can do, just saying “I love to watch you swim” can go such a long way. Finding a great coach is paramount: I’m so lucky to have worked with a string of excellent coaches that I am still close to.
* The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a non-profit association which regulates athletes of 1,281 institutions; conferences; organizations; and individuals. It also organizes the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and helps more than 450,000 college student-athletes who compete annually in college sports.
When the world thinks of Jamaica and sport, track and field and Usain Bolt immediately spring to mind. But there is one swimmer from the Caribbean island who has been making history in the pool and is gradually forcing everyone to take notice.
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Alia Atkinson became the first black woman to win a world swimming title when she stunned Ruta Meilutyte to win the 100m breaststroke at the World Short Course Championships in Doha last December and in the process, she equalled the Lithuanian’s world record of 1:02.36, which under governing body FINA rules is considered a new record.
While swimmers spend their lives obsessing over numbers – one millisecond can be the difference between becoming a world champion or not – Atkinson’s achievement was much greater than swimming the fastest 100m breaststroke in a 25m pool.
The expression on her face when she looked up at the board to learn she had won gold and set a world record said it all. It reflected shock in its purest form as she mouthed “me?” in disbelief, trying to digest what she had just pulled off.
As an athlete dedicated to improving her sport not just in the Caribbean, but minority swimming as a whole, Atkinson knew her accomplishment would massively help her cause.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in the swimming population (in Jamaica). More people are going out and having swim clinics and getting their children into the water. But even better the older ones are getting in as well, so they’re showing that it’s important not just for the children but for the adults to get in as well,” Atkinson told Sport360 after she set a new Jamaican long course record in the 100m breaststroke in Dubai last Friday.
“It shows progress and a wave that’s being extended throughout the entire island which is really good. In addition to that I know we’re starting more of a push from the entire Caribbean and black swimming in general all over the world. So we’re moving in that direction and I hope I’m a part of that.
“Coming from Jamaica you see everybody on the world scene but you always thought that they were out there, way far beyond your reach. And it took me until about 2013 to actually realise I am part of that group, I am in that area where people are looking and saying, ‘oh, she’s so far’ so I definitely try and make myself more approachable, especially in Jamaica, so people can come up to me and they don’t say, ‘she’s on a pedestal’. No I’m right down there, down to earth.”
In a way, Atkinson was destined to make a difference in the world as her quest to influence change started before she even knew it.
Her parents taught her how to swim at a young age so she wouldn’t grow up not having that skill like the majority of people in Jamaica.
Alia Atkinson sets Jamaica National Record to win 100M Breaststroke GOLD at World Cup, Dubai & GOLD in 50M in 30.26 pic.twitter.com/ogfRFkeLog
— Team Jamaica (@JamaicaOlympics) November 8, 2015
“About 75 per cent of Jamaicans didn’t know how to swim, so my parents wanted to be the ones to personally break that stereotype and just to make sure their children learned how to swim,” explained the 26-year-old. “So we all learned how to swim. I was the only one that kept on going afterwards. And it just turned into something to do after school.
“And then to make it into college. And then after college I only had one year before Olympics so I was like ‘you know what? Let’s make it my final hurrah and see what I can do’ and I got fourth. So I was like ‘alright, maybe I should give it another four years’.”
Atkinson moved to Florida as a teenager to train before getting into Texas A&M University two years later. She excelled for her school in the NCAA but admits it took her a while to adjust to life in the United States.
“It was a culture change for sure. I remember watching things on TV and be like ‘okay that’s what it’s going to be like’. Like Saved By The Bell. But it was not like Saved By The Bell,” she joked.
“Because in Jamaica, if you get up before the class is finished, you get reprimanded a lot. And in the US I remember the first day the bell rang and everyone just left while the teacher was talking. And I’m like ‘what am I doing?’
“So it was a bit of a culture change and I was shy to begin with. So it took me until college actually to break out of my shell and started to talk and get around and everything.”
Last August, Atkinson claimed Jamaica’s first-ever medals at a World Aquatics Championships (held in an Olympic-sized 50- metre pool) taking silver in the 50m breaststroke and bronze in the 100.
“Worlds was fantastic because my first international gold was short course Worlds in Doha in 2014, so I wanted to come back and show that I can still replicate something in the long course season so to come back and to have, not only the first Worlds medal (for Jamaica), but two, is I mean… I can’t complain,” she said.
Jamaica’s tally of 67 Olympic medals over the history of the Games have all come in track and field except for one bronze in cycling in 1980. But with Atkinson now making her way towards the pinnacle of her sport, Jamaica can now count on a medal in swimming at the Rio Olympics next year.
Rio will be Atkinson’s fourth Games and over the course of the past 11 years, she says the support from the track and field athletes has grown and she even received coaching tips from superstar sprinter Bolt.
“2012 Olympics (in London) I was the only swimmer and it was so fantastic because at the end going into it they watched my prelims, they watched my semi-finals, they were like ‘Alia you’ve got this’ and at finals they all got together in a room and watched my race,” she recalled.
“And at the end Usain Bolt came and critiqued my race: ‘you started out good, I feel like you had a good push from the wall but you slowed down a little bit on the turn and that’s where they got you’. And I’m like, ‘alright, I’m not going to criticise your 100, but fine, criticise away’. Because he’s a swimmer as well. He can swim, pretty well. So he knew what he was talking about,” she added with a laugh.
“The fact that everybody came up and surrounded me to show that swimming is integrated in Jamaica, it is coming up and people are looking at it and they’re enjoying it and getting inspired by it. Because they were like, ‘yes okay, Alia brought this on, she got fourth’ and everyone was pumped for their races the following week.”
The FINA World Short Course Swimming Championships that will take place in the UAE capital in 2020 will be an outdoor event, according to Abu Dhabi Sports Council secretary general Aref Al Awani.
Abu Dhabi won the right to host the event last July but it was unclear where the championships would be staged considering the city does not have a swimming arena like Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex.
Speculation suggested a new arena will be built for the event but Al Awani assures it would not be economically smart to construct an entire facility just for one competition.
“It will be an outdoor event and we’ll be setting up a temporary space for it,” Al Awani told Sport360.
“Considering we already have a big set-up for swimming in Dubai (the Hamdan Sports Complex), the idea we presented to the world governing body of swimming, FINA, was to introduce something new in the sport here in the UAE, something different. So it’s going to be outdoors.
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“Where and when, that’ll be announced in due time, but it won’t be costly and we won’t build an arena for swimming. Because it is not logical or economical for us to build an arena for one championship.
"The nature of the events we host always depends on utilising existing facilities here in Abu Dhabi and that’s what we’ll be doing.”
This will be the second time the short course Worlds will be staged in the UAE. Dubai hosted the 2010 edition which witnessed the official inauguration of the Dh1.1billion Hamdan Sports Complex facility.
While Dubai has since then played an active role in the international aquatics calendar, hosting a stream of FINA Swimming World Cups, the World Junior Swimming Championships, the Diving World Series along with numerous water polo competitions, Abu Dhabi is only just starting to strengthen its ties with FINA.
Last March the emirate hosted a FINA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup (open water), which will return next season, and high diving will make its Abu Dhabi debut with the FINA High Diving World Trophy set to take place in the capital on February 27, 2016.