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W50Free: Alshammar Aged To Perfection

Jul 31, 2011  - Craig Lord

Day 8 finals, Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai

Women's 50m freestyle

Therese Alshammar, 26 days shy of her 34th birthday, became the oldest world swimming champion in the history of women's swimming with a 24.14sec display of technical brilliance build over years of honing and correcting on a trajectory to that elusive place that the Swedish sprinter says does not exist: perfection.

Off her blocks and into her stroke in one fluid movement, Alshammar returned to that place of  technical superiority she had known more than a decade ago on her way to two silver medals at Sydney 2000: it looked like she was swimming in a wind tunnel of the kind you see in car tests, turbulence-free streamlining the aim.

And look where that took her to: the 24.13 world record of Inge de Bruijn (NED) at Sydney 2000, when Alshammar was closest to the born-again Dutch diva, remains the best textile-suit time there ever was, though De Bruijn wore a bodysuit. Alshammar is the best there has ever been in the cut of suit now allowed under rules that have breathed new life into a sport that was drowning in shiny suits just two years ago.

Where Alshammar has struggled to hold back the pack in the closing metres in the past, today she held on, taking revenge on the Orange nemesis of her career, the silver going to Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED), 24.27, and Dutch teammate and comeback mum Marleen Veldhuis, on 24.49. That confined Britain's Fran Halsall, on 24.60, to the worst of places, fourth, for the second time this week. 

All to the good if you want to be hungry for a home Olympic Games. Great news for Alshammar too. Where she had a world title in the past in a non-Olympic event, 50m butterfly, she now has one in an Olympic event. 

Asked about the oldest title Alshammar smiled and said that she saw it as neither positive nor negative: "It's just a fact".

The result:

  • 1. Theresa Alshammar, Sweden, 24.14. 
  • 2. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands, 24.27. 
  • 3 Marleen Veldhuis, Netherlands, 24.49. 
  • 4. Francesca Halshall, Britain, 24.60. 
  • 5. Aliaksandra Herasimenia, Belarus, 24.65. 
  • 6. Jeanette Ottesen, Denmark, 24.67. 
  • 7. Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace, Bahamas, 24.79. 
  • 8. Jessica Hardy, United States, 24.87.

Here is a short trawl of Alshammar's swimming history:

Back in 1991, a 13-year-old junior won the Swedish 100m backstroke title and was selected for senior international duty for the first time. Coach Thomas Lovgren told his young charge: tell them thanks but don't accept the trip - you're a bit too young. Take things slowly, steadily - and you'll get there and stay there. How wise and prophetic the words of Lovgren have proved to be. The teenage talent was Therese Alshammar, on her way to becoming European champion and double Olympic silver medallist in 2000 and a world champion in 2011 with many a thrill and spill between.

Lovgren's advice has contributed to one of the finest examples of long-term excellence in swimming history. "Yes, very true. I have never trained as hard as I do now. The training I do now is the hardest I've ever done in my career. But had I done 100k a week when I was 20 or 22 then maybe I would have burned out. If you have ... a clever coach who gives you that advice then go with that. It's best to increase it in stages, a little at a time and save some for later," says Alshammar.

Born in Solna in August 1977 the daughter of Olympic 100m breaststroke finalist of 1972, and Britt-Marie Smedh and Krister Alshammar, 15-year-old Alshammar accepted a place on the Sweden team for the first time in 1993, when she finished fourth in the 100m backstroke at the European Championships in Sheffield. "It was one of a few fourths I got in that event for many years at Europeans. It was a nice time to be around in Swedish swimming. There were people like Anders Holmertz (on the podium over 200m and 400m freestyle at Sheffield in 1993) and Tommy Werner (second to a young Russian named Alexander Popov in the 100m freestyle)."

Alshammar's history with Holmertz would rumble on down the years. In 2006, when she took three more solo wins at the 2006 Swedish short-course championships in Uppsala, her tally of 73 national titles took her one gold medals past Holmertz's record. And that 12 years after her world-championships debut, 10 years after her Olympic debut, seven years after setting her first two world short-course records, six years after winning two silvers (50m and 100m freestyle) and a bronze (4x100m freestyle) at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and a year before she won her first world long-course title (50m butterfly) in the same year that delivered the first world long-course record of her career (50m butterfly).

In 2010, Alshammar graced the European long-course Championship podium for an eighth time in the 50m freestyle, her victory the fourth of her career. Someone in the mixed zone uttered the word 'retire'. Flooring impertinence with a knockout smile, the star replied: "It's going so well for me, why should I retire? The 2012 Games are my goal." 

That victory in Budapest was one of three best career highlights -  "It was 10 years since I'd won in Helsinki in  2000 and a lot of things had happened in between. It was a very nice feeling to know that you can do it all again 10 years on" - alongside her first national title and her first world record, over 100m freestyle in December 1999 ("...breaking 53sec was a dream target that coach Dirk Lange and me and Sandra Voelker had been working on for some time".)

Add to her treasure trove gold in the 50m and silver in the 100m butterfly at the FINA World Championships (25m) last December - taking her tally of medals at the winter showcase to 17 since 1977, with 10 titles in the mix - and two $100,000 pay days for world cup victories in 2007 and 2010, and you have swimming lore and legend. Alshammar is aquatic vintage, her stock rising with age, her name household in Sweden, her status in the race pool that of role model to challengers less than half her age.

How did that manifest itself in daily life? "In the positive sense that people say hello and ask for autographs and in that I push myself in order to be the best role model and public person that I can be while still being me," said Alshammar, who sports a welcome note in the small of her back where a man of courage and good fortune might place his hand if dancing with the swim queen who gave the word for a tattoo to fit her aquatic ambition: DIVA.

Balance and moderation are two of the life skills that Alshammar cites as keys to longevity in sport. "I try to keep it balanced - the being disciplined and not," she says. "My training is more balanced all round than it was in the early days. Before I could get really run down with training in the pool but still come back for more. Now I have to be more cautious and find ways not to let boredom take a hold. You've got to keep it more interesting. I do a lot of land training, as well as swimming, which is important.

"I do train harder than before but it also takes a little longer than before. I think that the great advantage with age is that you get smarter, you work things out, it becomes a question of having worked through trial and error ... and go with what works. So, I think for me I learned to be a lot smarter with recovery. I also have to do something I like: I actively have to seek out some alternatives to swimming." Top pursuits: "Cooking, eating, walking, surfing, talking, shopping, watching."

Travel is a necessity too but Alshammar embraces it.  January 2011 found one of the most-travelled swimmers in the world on camp in Mexico and then Down Under training and racing with her overseas teammates at the Sydney super-squad of coach Grant Stoelwinder.

"I'm lucky to be able and allowed to prepare for Shanghai together with the elite squad of NSWIS (New South Wales Institute of Sport) in Sydney, where my coach Johan Wallberg and I both believe the environment plus the squad is the best in the world." Of Stoelwinder, she adds: "The things he sees and can put words to in swimming, together with the passion he brings to training, is unprecedented. So after training with them, race day is easy." Them means Geoff Huegill, Matthew Abood, Andrew Lauterstein, Eamon Sullivan and Lisbeth Trickett, friend and rival, some may say.

Alshammar paints her world in other colours: "I don't see myself as having rivals, the biggest challenge is always chasing my own goals." Early on that had much to do with chasing carrots: recalling that first 50m backstroke national title back in 1991, she notes: "My parents promised me I would get a red dunny jacket for winter that I really wanted if I medalled ... I swam for my life!" 

Some 20 years down the line and she is "motivated by doing things better/harder/faster". Wallberg, she says, is "the best coach in the world ..." Cue laughter: "I've swum with enough coaches throughout  the years to know". Their relationship is "filled with respect and shared visions".

Asked how she defined success, she said: "... how I measure success, that's a good question. I think it comes down to looking at what I can do better. I try to keep my approach fresh and try to do new things. I've travelled a lot and tried different places, I've been eager to find the best environment for me." 

The money prizes now available in the sport of swimming are a godsend. "The money gives me an opportunity to be a professional, I can't think of a more fulfilling or exciting way to make a living," she says. "So yes, it has kept me in the sport of swimming. I invest most if my earnings in swimming again- in order to keep performing and progressing I believe in putting myself in good professional environments. I also try to save some for the day I feel like doing something else."

Come the time to say goodbye, Alshammar will not only count her medals but the stamps in her passport that tell the tale of a journey that has done nothing to cure her wanderlust. The swimmer doesn't see herself settling in Sweden. "That's not to say anything bad about Sweden because I love it here and I will always be Swedish. Italy is a place I really like and in the last few years I've really come to like Sydney a lot ... but it is too far away from anywhere else. You can't go home for your mother's birthday from there!"

Asked how she felt about racing for titles against some less than half her age she replied: "I don't give it any thought. If anything it's easier being younger because you have no experience. Experience can also be an advantage but so can inexperience, you can learn from inexperience because in youth you don't think about anything. Later on you become more self conscious and you expect too much. That's why you get big drops and then it stops for a reason. The mind-set is what stops faster progress."

Her tips for those who follow: "Don't hurry, take it slowly, take it easy, make sure you have fun along the way and find the joy in swimming. I'd say  make every day interesting and funny because that's the best recipe for success; and surround yourself with great people because that's how you get better. Keep focused on your goals and training. Prize money is a bonus when you achieve your goals."

History in the making:


  • WR (all suits): 23.73 Britta Steffen (GER) Rome August 2, 2009
  • WR (textile):    24.13 Inge de Bruijn (NED) Sydney, September 22, 2000

World-class stats:

  • World Record wins: Le Jingyi (CHN) 1994
  • Title retained: Inge De Bruijn (NED); Lisbeth Lenton-Trickett (AUS)
  • Biggest margin: De Bruijn beat Alice Mills (AUS) by 0.60sec in 2003
  • Closest shave: Zhuang Yong (CHN) beat joint silver medallists Leigh Ann Fetter (USA) and Catherine Plewinski (FRA) by 0.03sec in 1991

From the archive:

At Rome in 1994, Le Jingyi (CHN) claimed four gold medals, each in a world record. She was a member of  the “Golden Flowers” squad who claimed 12 of the 16 women’s titles. The 24.51sec world record she set would last until Inge de Bruijn (NED) became a born-again Olympic champion in 2000. Le’s 1994 effort would have won the world title in 1998, 2005 and 2007. More than 40 Chinese swimmers tested positive for steroids in the 1990s. Le never failed a drug test but her coach Zhao Ming was suspended for eight years as a serial offender.

Since the dash was introduced in 1986, Australia and the Netherlands are matched on two golds, a silver and two bronze medals each. The tie could not be broken at the 2009 Rome world championships, where bronze was shared by Cate Campbell (AUS) and Marleen Veldhuis (NED) in 23.99 behind a 23.88 silver for Therese Alshammar (SWE). Olympic champion Britta Steffen (GER) emerged from a 23.73 world-record victory to declare: "I felt like a speedboat in water and never in my life would I have believed that a human could glide like that … this suit should be forbidden.” By 2010, it was. The effect on the clock has been stark. The Melbourne 2007 world title went to Libby Lenton (AUS) in 24.53, while 24.48 was the time of the 8th swimmer home in 2009, for example. In 2010, Steffen took time out, European champion Alshammar led the world rankings on 24.27, with Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED) the only other woman inside 24.50.