Olympians Giving Back: Gemma Spofforth

Feature by Chelsea Howard

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, April 11. WHEN it came down to ending a swimming career in 2005 and attending college in England or traveling 4,400 miles away to attend college in the United States, the 2008 Olympian Gemma Spofforth chose to continue her swimming career at the University of Florida.

“In order to continue swimming and study alongside, I needed to come to the States. It is much harder to do both at home and so it came down to Florida or Hawaii in the end. Multiple coaches across America tried to recruit me, but I had a list of criteria in which Florida won over the rest,” Spofforth said.

During her collegiate career at Florida, she was a five-time NCAA champion, an 11-time All-American, a two-time SEC champion and two-time SEC record holder.

Little did Spofforth know that when she made the decision of whether or not to keep swimming, a few years later she would become a world record holder.

Spofforth represented Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics where she finished fourth in the 100-meter backstroke and ninth in the 200-meter backstroke. In 2009 at the World Aquatic Championships in Rome, she was crowned champion of the 100-meter backstroke, posting a world record time of 58.12.

Spofforth's experience during the 2008 Olympic Games was unlike any other meet she has ever competed in.

“Beijing was a shock to my system. I felt like I was at Disney at the age of 12 when overstimulation clouds the judgment of all my experiences. Each second, I engulfed something new, filling myself to the brim with excitement. This experience will stay with me forever,” Spofforth said.

Shortly after the 2008 Olympics, Spofforth broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke leaving emotions of happiness, satisfaction, and longing.

“The feeling of happiness is obvious, I felt satisfaction since I expected to do it. I had dreamed of that result and lived it for the past year believing in myself deep within my core. And I felt longing because I wished my mom could have been there to see it,” Spofforth, who lost her mother to bowel cancer in 2007, said.

A big struggle for Spofforth as a competitive swimmer is taking advice from coaches, families, and friends to improve her performance.

“It's hard dealing with how selfish an athlete has to be to accomplish his or her goals. I don't like the fact that I am constantly taking from friends, family, and coaches. But, to deal with it, I find ways to give back and make my gratitude known to my coaches,” Spofforth said.

One way that Spofforth has found a way to give back is through an organization called Swim Across America.

“With Swim Across America, I am an advocate for the charity. It is very close to my heart since my mother died of cancer and I have had 2 close family members who also died of cancer within the last two years,” Spofforth said. “I arranged a swim that our team at UF raised money for.”

In addition to Swim Across America, Spofforth does community service unrelated to swimming within her community.

“I volunteer at the Alachua County Crisis Center for the suicide hotline and crisis intervention counseling. I also volunteer at Quinn Jones, which is a school for children who have behavioral problems and are suspended from their pervious schools. We try to rehabilitate them through school and counseling placing them back into society,” Spofforth said.

Finding other ways to give back to the swimming world, Spofforth works for Swim America.

“At Swim America, I teach children from 2 years-old to 10 years-old how to swim,” Spofforth said.

Recently, Spofforth participated in a swim clinic set-up by the mayor of Atlanta, Ga. Since this is her favorite part of what she does, she finds a way to put her full energy into it.

“I love this part of my job. I went to Atlanta for the day and submersed myself within a crowd of about 200 children. The mayor and I gave a speech to inspire the youth and promote London 2012 as well as London as a city,” Spofforth said.

This year as Spofforth prepares for the 2012 Olympics in her home country, she is going into the meet with a different mindset compared to the 2008 Olympics.

“I am going to have an open mind to experience it all as a whole rather than being overwhelmed by the experience. I am so excited as it is a home crowd and I don't think anything can top that,” Spofforth said.

Having experienced several obstacles in the pool as well as with everyday life, Spofforth encourages younger swimmers to never give up.

“Always have fun and remember failure is a good thing. Without failure, you can't learn and you can't improve. Always get up and try again,” Spofforth said.