Jack Burnell: Olympic Dreams, Groundbreaking Tech And Having A Ball

Jack Burnell finish
Jack Burnell: Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia

When Jack Burnell announced his retirement from open water swimming, his goal was to surpass in business what he had achieved in sport.

Burnell brought his career to an end in April after eight years of representing Britain on the international stage.

During that time he won European and World Cup medals as well as claiming fourth and fifth-place finishes in 2017 and 2015 respectively among four World Championship appearances.

There was desolation at the 2016 Olympics in Rio when Burnell was disqualified in the final metres after receiving a second yellow card following a tussle with Oussama Mellouli, something he described as “my career highlight and my career lowlight at the same time.”

Success at Tokyo 2020 was his final objective but the year-long delay culminated in him realising he wouldn’t achieve his gold-medal dream and he called it a day.

Having always run business ventures alongside his swimming, Burnell is now immersed in the tech industry and is launching a platform enabling small businesses and service providers to create their own app in a cost-effective way.

In a wide-ranging interview with Swimming World, Burnell talked about the transition from sport to life away from the pool, his business ambitions, Rio and Tokyo and his football passion with Chelsea and Brentford.

He also shares his thoughts on FINA, safety and how they can improve open water as a spectacle.

From Rio Desolation To Having A Ball

An abiding memory of Rio 2016 was Burnell’s anger and hurt after he was disqualified in the closing metres of the marathon swimming at Copacabana Beach.

The Briton had been in medal contention but two yellow cards shattered his Olympic dream.

He said:

“You never really get over something like that. I’ll always look back at Rio and think what a great experience it was to be at an Olympic Games to represent your country but there’s also that bitter element at what could have been.

“I’ve come to terms with the fact you can’t change the past, you can only influence the future and that is where I’m at now with my business career and the fact that I achieved a lot in my sporting career but I genuinely believe that is only the start of what I can achieve in my business career.

“The Olympic medal was what I set out to achieve: it was taken away from me there but that was out of my control at the end of the day and I am confident that I did everything I possibly could in my career and the time I was in the sporting world to achieve what I did.

“So I can walk away from the sport with my head held high for sure.”

Jack Burnell Chelsea (1)

Photo Courtesy: Jack Burnell Twitter

Going into 2020, Burnell – who was coached by Dave Hemmings at Loughborough – had his eyes on Tokyo in what would be the final race of his career.

In March 2020, the International Olympic Committee announced the Games were delayed until July 2021 and that was ultimately the beginning of the end for Burnell and his swimming journey.

If he couldn’t be in with a chance of making the top of the podium, then he didn’t want to be there at all.

He said:

“I was geared up massively to compete in 2020.

“The difference with me was I was getting to the end of my career at that point so for me that was the big swansong, the big hurrah I guess.

“And that year push-back just tipped it over the edge for me personally: the enjoyment started to slip away from swimming, I started to get injuries I’d never had before and everything seemed to be going in one direction including my world ranking.

“I’d always set out in swimming – as in anything I set out to do – to be the best in the world at it and it was becoming quite apparent that me going to the Olympic Games in 2021, I wasn’t going to be the best in the world and I am very realistic about that.

“For me to continue to put my body through what it was going through, put my mind what it was going through, put my family what I was going through – the cons outweighed the pros.

“That’s where I just said to myself I think it’s time to call it a day: I can take ownership over that and I don’t want to finish 20th on the side of the road in Tokyo and look back and think to myself – what realistically was the point in doing that extra year?”

Burnell had always run his business career alongside his sporting one and three years ago became the performance mindset coach at Brentford, now of the Premier League but then competing in the Championship.

It came about when he gave a team talk to the Brentford first team prior to the 2018/19 season which resulted in several players asking for one-to-one sessions from where the business relationship flourished.

Burnell said:

“For me personally that club is incredible: the ethos that has been bult there.

“I am just honoured that I can build upon that and work with very key influential players and develop that – the resilience that I have had within Olympic sport – and implement that into the football world.

“It is something I am very privileged to do and I just love it.”

Football is his passion, the man who has spent time at the top table of elite sport starry-eyed as he recalled meeting his Chelsea heroes.

He beamed:

“Post-Rio Chelsea did a big piece on me in the club magazine and on Chelsea TV.

“I went into the dressing room after one of the games and I always look back at that and say that was the highlight of my sporting career rather than the Olympic Games!

“I walked into the dressing room and John Terry was the first player to come up to me and say ‘hi Jack, I saw your race’.

Cezar Azpilicueta came up to me, started chatting to me, that’s when Thibaut Courtois was on the team and he started chatting – it was a very surreal moment in my life as I’d supported and loved this club as a five-year-old kid.

“To then be in the dressing room with these guys chatting to me, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I’ve never been gobsmacked and lost for words but I certainly was in that case!”

Were there any conflicts when Brentford played Chelsea recently as the Blues came away with a narrow win?

“I wanted both teams to win. It was the strangest feeling ever.”

A Smooth Transition And A Revolutionary Tech Platform

Many athletes have struggled after retiring as they attempt to forge a new life.

While training and competing, every moment of every day of an athlete’s life is scheduled and organised and the sudden loss of that structure is destabilising.

So too the lack of objectives and goals that have been ever-present.

Jack Burnell

Jack Burnell: Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

Burnell though didn’t feel the transition so keenly having done a business degree while he was swimming before launching his own ventures.

To him, sport wasn’t the be all and end all.

In his own words, Burnell was known during his swimming career as “the guy who was constantly doing something in business, the guy who would always wheel and deal.”

He would advise people to “sell what you know,” something which prompted a conversation with his business mentor around how to make it easier for people to do just that.

Noting the success of online store builder Shopify, where owners can sell their products, Burnell set about creating a platform where service providers can build their own app in his role as head of community and partnerships with UltraWell.

The platform enables businesses to have everything in one place – a business storefront essentially.

Around £1.5million (2,070.000 US dollars) of tech has already gone into Ultrawell with Burnell and his team set for their first funding push by the end of 2021 before a projected launch date of mid-2022.

It means small businesses and sole traders who had previously not been able to afford to pay someone to build an app can now do so for as little as £30 (41 US dollars) a month.

Burnell said:

“It allows small independents to compete with the big boys.

“Back in the day when website just used to be made by agencies, they’d cost hundreds, thousands even, you wouldn’t really know what you were getting.

“Whereas now you can simply go on Wix or Squarespace and you can create an incredible website because all the hard work has been done for you.

“We are in effect doing that for service providers to deliver their services through an app and all that data is in one place.

“At the minute these guys are using Zoom, WhatsApp, Google sheets, email, spreadsheets – all these different things are not combined in one place because it’s going to cost half a million pounds to build an app that does all that.

“We have taken all that headache, all that tech away and put it into one simple low monthly subscription.

“And it allows people that are independent service providers to compete with people who have 400 consultants who can create an app like that because they’ve got the budget for it.”

He added:

“Tech is only great when it integrates into life seamlessly: the technology can be incredible but if it doesn’t integrate into daily life it won’t be functional or usable and people won’t use it.

“That is what is at the core of our business is that we make this simple and we allow people with no tech knowledge at all  to deliver their services.

“These are people with great knowledge and we allow them to deliver their services online with no tech experience and no real budget to produce these things which usually cost huge amounts of money.”

On Open Water Safety And Attracting An Audience

Burnell wasn’t competing in open water when Fran Crippen died on 23 October 2010 during a FINA-sanctioned 10k open water event in the United Arab Emirates in hot water temperatures.

Following his death, FINA implemented rule OWS 5.5 stating that the water temperature cannot be below 16 degrees Celsius (60.8 F) or above 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 F).

While Burnell says there was greater consideration given to safety, he still has reservations, saying:

“It’s been way better since I have been competing – the wetsuit rules and all that kind of stuff.

“Even that though is a bit suspect: I think FINA will bend the rules to whatever suits their situation.

“I’ve been in races where the water has definitely been too cold to race or too warm: the water temperature is taken right next to the boat engine so it’s warmer or in shallower waters when they want it to be warmer.

“There’s always going to be an element of bending the rules and stuff like that.

“There are no hard and fixed rules of when it needs to be taken or where it needs to be taken; it’s just – we’ll bend the rules to suit what we need.

“But it is way safer I think, a lot more stringent on that side.”

Watching the Olympics, it reinforced to Burnell that open water has to be more proactive if it is to be classed as entertainment and attract an audience.

Jack Burnell

Jack Burnell: Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

“The problem open water has is the way it’s filmed and the way it’s televised and the way it’s presented to the general public is so dry, it’s almost not watchable and you are never going to develop a sport or create a buzz around a sport if it isn’t entertaining to watch.

“And that ultimately has to be at the absolute core of what FINA need to do.

“Look at the ISL, they’re trying to do that. Whether they are succeeding in it or not is up to someone’s judgement.

“But I think what FINA have to do is make that sport a commercially viable proposition to a broadcaster or to someone that wants to get fans interested and watch it.

“Otherwise, there’ll be no money in the sport and it will stay a sport that just ticks along with lottery funding.”

Burnell has some ideas of his own.

“Why are there not three or four drones in the air? It doesn’t make sense: drones were literally made to film open water swimming, they’re a perfect tool.

“You have cameras on boats that video splashing water at the side and you can barely see what is going on.

“All these graphics you see in F1 here you can see where people are and you understand who is where and what’s going on; there is just none of that that goes on in open water swimming, even at the highest level.

“We’re living in a generation where TikTok shows you a video for 10 seconds or 5 seconds and you decide if you want to scroll on or not; a sport where it shows you where someone is every half hour is just not reality.

“Why aren’t all swimmers wearing tracking devices which show where everyone is in real time?

“Look at the marathon: people watch and they know everyone’s splits. It creates an intrigue.”

 

 

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