Sarah Sjostrom Surprises Self, Opens up About Injury Fear after Olympics Opener

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Sarah Sjoestroem (SWE) after the women's 100m butterfly heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network
Sarah Sjostrom; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Network

When Sarah Sjostrom fractured her elbow in February, she wondered for a moment if her chance at the Tokyo Olympics was gone. Facing surgery, an expected three-month rehab and an injury like she’d never experienced in her stellar career, doubt naturally crept in.

“I never had a hard injury like this before, so I didn’t know anything about this fracture,” Sjostrom said. “I didn’t know how long it could take to come back.”

The answer Sjostrom got Saturday night: Quicker than just about anyone, including her, imagined.

Sjostrom turned in a rock-solid first day at the Olympics. The Swedish superstar went 56.18 in the women’s 100 butterfly, taking the third seed in Sunday’s semifinals. She led off the Swedish 400 free relay with a leg of 52.95, enough of a cushion to get Sweden into the final as the eighth and final seed.

Sjostrom had her doubts on the way to Tokyo. But Saturday’s performance quieted them.

“When I started swimming again after my surgery, I was like, I’m never ever going to swim again,” she said. “I couldn’t physically take a stroke in the water. My arm just couldn’t do anything. It’s great to do this kind of comeback.”

Sjostrom is the reigning Olympic champion in the 100 fly. She owns the Olympic record, the world record and four World Championships in the event. But when the 27-year-old went 57.7 in Rome at Sette Colli in June and “barely finished the race,” in her words, she was contemplating whether that event would even make her Tokyo program.

Saturday, she zoomed in with a 56.18, seven tenths off her world record but her fastest time in four years.

“Today I felt extremely strong and it was my best time in like four years,” she said. “Obviously that’s a big surprise after the preparations I’ve had the last six months.”

It may take a world record to win that event. Zhang Yufei of China and Australia’s Emma McKeon both went 55.82 in the prelims, and Torri Huske was ahead of Sjostrom most of the way in their joust before finishing in 56.29. But Sjostrom will have a say in where the medals, including gold, go.

In the relay, her time of 52.95 was the second-fastest split in her heat, trailing only Anna Hopkin of Great Britain (52.65), though Hopkin had a relay start as an aid. Sjostrom’s time was the quickest flat-start time of the 15 in the race, and it gets her and the team of Michelle Coleman, Louise Hansson and Sara Junevik another swim. (That comes at the expense of Japan and Rikako Ikee – who split a team-best 53.63 as the Japanese went 3:36.20.)

Sjostrom isn’t afraid to say she wouldn’t mind an extra month or two to heal and regain strength. But she’s making due, and Saturday’s performance puts the injury further in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t think about it at all when I race,” she said. “I feel good and I feel strong. I’m also surprised with how quick this rehab can go.”