Siobhan-Marie O’Connor will on Sunday try to add to her 24 major international championship medals, but just her appearance on the startline at the world swimming championships in Gwangju already represents an inspiration that extends far beyond her sport.
It was shortly after the London Olympics in 2012, where she appeared as a wide-eyed but precociously talented 16-year-old hopeful, that she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease which affects around 150,000 people in the United Kingdom. It was then after winning a silver medal in the 200m individual medley at Rio de Janeiro that she decided to start speaking publicly about living with what can be a severely debilitating condition.
A serious flare-up occurred, however, around her 23rd birthday late last year to the extent that O’Connor feared that a career, which requires her to train 50 weeks of the year and annually swim around 2,500 kilometres, was over.
“It has been a struggle, the past year has been the toughest I have had,” she says. “There was a time, when it was really bad and I was really poorly, that I wasn’t sure if I could ever swim again. The Olympics in Tokyo seemed like a pipedream.”
A new course of medication, however, helped the symptoms to ease earlier this year and, despite only minimal training, she won the national championships in April to qualify for the British team that starts out on Sunday at the world championships. Not only does O’Connor now again feel full of energy and in excellent physical health, but she has a renewed outlook on her sport. “One of the main things ulcerative colitis has taught me is that strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming something you felt you couldn’t,” she says. “I had it really well controlled for ages but sometimes it can come out of nowhere which is difficult to deal with mentally.
“It isn’t something you can predict but it has given me a great perspective on swimming. It made me think how grateful I am and how lucky I am to do the sport that I love. I have done it since a little girl and I never once thought I would complete and have opportunities like this.”
Speaking openly with such candour after Rio also brought an unexpected but tangible extra comfort. “Before Rio, I was a bit nervous and I didn’t really talk about it,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be seen like an excuse. After Rio, someone asked me about it in a press conference and the response I got from social media was absolutely overwhelming. I had messages from hundreds of people with ulcerative colitis. They were so kind and lovely - people saying how happy they were that I talked about it because it gave them confidence.”
And what affect did being so honest have on O’Connor herself?
“It made me feel like I should have never kept it to myself and I thought I am never going to shy away from it again,” she says. “The one thing about ulcerative colitis is that it is something people are scared and embarrassed to talk about. That’s why people often don’t get diagnosed quickly but when I hear someone talk about it, it makes me feels more comfortable.
“I have done a few days with the charity Crohn's & Colitis UK and I hear stories from people who are stronger than me. Other people battle much bigger things than this. They really inspire me so, yes, if I can help one person feel a bit better, that would be great. You should be able to tell those around you and not feel ashamed and, as soon as you do, it does help you. Once I stopped feeling embarrassed I felt so much better.”
O’Connor says that she now feels “really healthy” going into the world championships following a training camp in Yokohama that will mirror next year’s Olympic preparations. “We have gone though that tapering period with two weeks to go when you feel amazing, have loads of energy and you don’t know what to do it with it,” she says.
“You literally have to rest. Just sit in your room, relax and chill out. You have to conserve all that energy and keep it for race day.”
With plenty of signage up already in and around both Tokyo and Yokohama, it has been natural over recent weeks to allow thoughts to occasionally drift to what it might be like next year during what would be a third Olympics.
Having raced the world championships when she just 15 in 2011, O’Connor thought that she had missed out on a place in London the following year after nerves got to her in the final qualifying race in her signature 200m medley event. She was selected, however, in both the 100m breaststroke and medley relay to gain an invaluable experience of the ultimate celebration of sport.
“The Olympics is like nothing else,” she says. “You stay in a village, eat in a food hall with thousands of people and suddenly you might see people like Roger Federer or Michael Phelps walking past.”
And so were there any Olympians who left O’Connor, as a 16-year-old debutant, a little starstruck? “Usain Bolt definitely,” she says, laughing. “There were some really big names who would be really discreet. They would put their hoods up when they came into the food hall and did not want to be disturbed. Usain Bolt walked straight in with his arms in the air. It was like ‘I’m here’. It was surreal but you can get swept away. In Rio, I knew what to expect and what hype there would be.”
The London experience had proved crucial and O’Connor would produce the performance of her life in 2016, winning a silver medal just 0.3 secs behind Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu in what was a new British record time. So how does she now reflect, three years on, about those two weeks?
“I don’t think there is a day that goes by where I don’t think abut the time I was there and how special it was,” she says. “It’s everything, all the memories with your friends, seeing loved ones, the closing ceremony, swimming the race I had worked so hard for. The medal was fantastic but it was more that I had worked for four years to swim my dream race and I did it.”
O’Connor keeps her silver medal in a sock back home in March (“I don’t want it scratched”) and, while always conscious that her ulcerative colitis could strike at the least opportune moment, will approach Tokyo with the belief that another medal is well within her capabilities.
“Every athlete has something thing to deal with, whether illness or injuries I just have to manage what I have as best I can,” she says. “I’m only 23 which for a swimmer is prime age. I am not done - I still have that drive and I don’t feel my best days are behind me. It’s cliche but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - and I definitely feel stronger from my experiences.”