James Guy, Aimee Willmott & Abbie Wood Pay Tribute To “Legend” Siobhan O’Connor

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Siobhan O'Connor; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

“You can’t beat being nice to people and all the best athletes in the world – the Roger Federers, the Michael Phelps – they’re good people and so is Siobhan.

“The presence she had on poolside – she’s a lovely young woman – she had a great spirit about her but once she got in that pool she was competitive.

“She wanted to race the best in the world; she hated losing.”

So says double Olympic relay silver medallist James Guy of Siobhan O’Connor, the Rio 200IM silver medallist who retired this week following a 10-year international career that also garnered world, European and Commonwealth titles.

The 25-year-old announced on Wednesday she had brought to an end a fine career, the extent of her achievements all the more striking given she has lived with ulcerative colitis since 2011, a condition that went undiagnosed for a year.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

From late 2011 she had uncontrolled diarrhoea – going to the toilet up to 20 times a day – intense fatigue, excruciating stomach pain and extreme soreness in her joints.

Her sight was also affected and she would wake up each morning with blurred vision.

Ulcerative colitis can flare up without warning at any time and severely impacted O’Connor’s ability to train and by extension, her competition.

Those months ahead of Rio in 2016 were the only time she enjoyed an unbroken block of training, the result of which was clear to see.

There O’Connor became only the third woman to go 2:06 in the 200IM when she finished second behind Katinka Hosszu – gaining with every stroke down those final metres – in 2:06.88.

Only Hosszu – with her 2015 world record of 2:06.12 – and Ariana Kukors, who went 2:06.15 at the 2009 worlds at the peak of the shiny-suit circus, have gone quicker than the Briton.

Guy paid tribute to his long-time friend and now former team-mate, telling Swimming World:

“She’ll be massively missed on the team. Being in Rio with her, seeing her fulfil her dreams and get her Olympic medal, just behind the gold of the Iron Lady – what a great career.

“World record-holder, world champion, European champion, Olympic medallist, Commonwealth champion. She’s done alright.

“If you’d have told her that at nine years old she would have taken it – as anyone would do.”

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James Guy: Photo Courtesy: FINIS

Four-time world champion Guy made his senior international debut at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, coming fifth in the 400.

He was 17 at the time, the same age as O’Connor, who made her senior bow at 15 at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, with the pair born just three days apart in November 1995.

They first got to know each other in 2011 and have forged a strong friendship that endures to this day.

Guy recalled O’Connor’s impact in and out of the pool, the warm person on the deck and the tenacious competitor in the water, saying:

“Having someone your own age at the 2013 World Championships – I didn’t know anyone on that team apart from Siobhan – she was so nice and welcoming.

“Anyone who is new on the team, she makes an effort with everybody; an all-round good person.

“You can’t beat being nice to people and all the best athletes in the world – the Roger Federers, the Michael Phelps – they’re good people and so is Siobhan.

“The presence she had on poolside – she’s a lovely young woman – she had a great spirit about her but once she got in that pool she was competitive.

“She wanted to race the best in the world; she hated losing.

“But also having that calmness on the team where if you felt down you could go and speak to her, you could go and do that.

“I did that for a long time, Adam Peaty did, she’s that kind of go-to person; if things aren’t going well, she’d always ask if you are okay, shall we get a coffee? And it’s really important to have that.”

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Aimee Willmott: Photo Courtesy: Swim England

Aimee Willmott, who is heading to her third Games before she too retires, was on many international teams with O’Connor.

The European 400IM silver medallist pointed to the importance of O’Connor and Jazz Carlin in the re-emergence of British women in the pool, the pair claiming three silvers between them at Rio 2016.

She said:

“Siobhan’s been an amazing athlete and I’ve been lucky enough to be on so many teams with her, travel the world, experience these memories of being on Team GB with people that you get on with.

“To see her swim so well in Rio and be so successful was a bit of tearjerker – her and Jazz, it was so nice to see friends as well as team-mates win medals.

“So she’s been an amazing athlete and for me she really moved on British swimming in terms of females: following Becky (Adlington) we were having a bit of a lull and we’ve really come back and Siobhan and Jazz in Rio were a real key part of that.

“I think she has inspired so many people, she’s gone through so many challenges and I’m really lucky and fortunate that we shared so many teams.

“There’ll be so many stories and memories that we’ll talk about in years to come and Siobhan will be part of it along with the other girls.”

Abbie Wood is the British 200IM champion and heads to Tokyo with a European silver from Budapest.

The 22-year-old trained with O’Connor at the National Centre Loughborough after the latter’s move from Bath.

Wood’s PB stands at 2:09.23 and of O’Connor’s 2:06, she says:

“It’s honestly mad, it’s unreal.

“For it to be the British record as well, it’s a hard one to chase, she really left her mark.

“A 2:06 is unreal and a time I would dream of. It would be my goal to go 2:06 one day but it is so incredible that she did that.”

Abbie Wood, Glasgow 2021

Abbie Wood, Glasgow 2021 Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

Wood continued:

“I was on a lot of teams with her but she was always the girl I looked up to and when she did her last year at Loughborough we became best friends.

“There were four of us girls that were so close. Just seeing how she went about her business, she was so professional, such a lovely girl.

“We were so sad when she told us she was calling it a day but I feel like she’s done so well with her health problems that have gone alongside it.

“She just handles herself so well around the pool,she’s such a legend in the sport.

“I didn’t realise she’d got 34 international medals which is just unreal for any swimmer, she’s made her mark on the sport, and just a really good example for all of us girls and hopefully all us girls in Tokyo.”

O’Connor And Success In The Hardest Of Circumstances

At the announcement of the swimmers who had been selected to Team GB in April, national performance director Chris Spice paid his own tribute to O’Connor whose training had been so disrupted that she’d had to withdraw from the British trials.

She said then that she “was taking some time to get well and decide what her next steps will be” before confirming her retirement this week.

Spice said in April:

“It’s incredibly sad for Siobhan that she’s been ill and wasn’t able to prepare for trials at all and we feel for her.

“She did such an outstanding job in Rio: to push Hosszu to that point. For me that was up there with Adam’s (Adam Peaty) swim. It was so breathtaking.

“We were all screaming our lungs out on that last 50 metres but we didn’t quite get her over the line but it was a sensational swim.”

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (photo: Mike Lewis)

Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS

Given O’Connor’s training in and out of the pool has been so impacted over the years, can her outcome in Rio be held up as a shining example of what can be achieved with a small window of opportunity?

Spice concurred, saying:

“It’s amazing what we can do with short preparation and I think one of the things that lockdown has taught us is that we might just be preparing our athletes slightly differently rather than the heavy volumes that we are used to in the pool all the time.

“There’s a way to keep fit and strong and work on their technique that can assist with what is going on in the pool.

“I think we’ll look back on this time and really evaluate how we prepare swimmers in the future, definitely.”


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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Bruce

    A great swimmer – an example to us all!