Grassroots to Glory - Alys Thomas
Alys Thomas was a five year old ‘flyer!
Every kid knows that grassing on a friend is akin to high treason, the sort of flagrant deceit that will immediately get a person un-invited from a birthday party.
Alys Thomas was five when a tiny mate played Brutus to her Caesar and gave away her big secret. Fortunately, the swimmer met a different fate from that of the Roman general. Rather than end a reign, the betrayal began a conquest that could result in an Olympic medal.
“My mum always tells me the first time I swam a stroke was when I was 18 months old,” said the 30-year-old butterfly specialist.
“I don't know how accurate that is. It seems very young to me. But I think she knew I was a water baby and I loved swimming. She got me involved in private lessons. I think from a very young age, and then at the age of five I remember trialling out for my first swimming club, Kingston Royals. You had to do 25 of each stroke. Most of the kids trying out could not do fly, but I could. I was scared to say, oh, I'll do the fly one but another girl knew I could do fly. She told me to do it, and I did it, and everybody was like oh my god there’s a five-year-old doing fly!"
“That obviously got me in the club. It sounds funny saying it out loud, but I have just always loved swimming. I’ve just always felt at home in the water.”
The pool became a sanctuary for the budding Olympian, who found it harder to fit in at school.
She said: “I was always a little bit awkward and struggled a bit because I’m dyslexic. I was alright, because I had help and stuff, but it was never really my thing. I just always had swimming and that was where I flourished and found myself. It’s where I felt at home, where I felt free.”
Thomas’ wailing alarm clock was a daily reminder of the price she paid for liberty. Every morning at half past four, she would drag herself out of bed to get ready for training. Until the swimmer could drive, Thomas’ mum would ferry her to two-hour sessions then directly to school. On the weekends, the pair would pile back in the car for competitions.
“[My mum] sacrificed all her weekends,” Thomas said.“So, I feel like now I've got to that international stage she can watch me with pride representing Great Britain. My dad and my brother as well. I feel like I'm trying to give back like, this is all of your sacrifice.”
Thomas, who is now one of over 1,000 athletes to receive support from National Lottery funding, allowing her to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, and coaching, now has suitcases overflowing with Team GB kit, but hers was an Olympian making that took longer than most—and began with the country that gave birth to the Games.
“I’ve always been fascinated by [The Olympics] from a young age,” said Thomas.
“I remember watching the Athens Games in 2004. And I was fascinated because they had the olive leaf crowns on their heads. And I just remember thinking, ‘those are real life heroes. That’s what I want to be.’ It was like a switch in my head. And I was like, if I really apply myself now, as a young teenager, I could do this. I could be there. I could have an olive crown on my head.”
Thomas, whose paternal grandparents are Welsh, now trains in Swansea and competes for her dad’s home nation. Coach Stuart McNarry first met Thomas in Sheffield, and immediately recognised the A-level student’s huge potential.
“My first impression of Alys was ‘this girl’s got talent’,” he recalled.
“It’s a talent which took a few years to get to where it deserved to be, but we got there in the end.”
Thomas moved to McNarry’s Swansea base. She seemed on the verge of an Olympic breakthrough in 2016, claiming the British title in the 100m and finishing runner-up in the 200m at the Glasgow nationals. She was devastated to learn her achievements were not enough to earn her a spot on the Rio roster. Doubt - her own, but especially others’ - has been a career-constant nemesis for the swimmer.
She said: “I remember a couple of instances where other coaches or people in higher places have perhaps turned around to me or called me into an office and said, ‘hmm, is it time that Alys Thomas quits? Is it time that Alys Thomas retires?’ And I was kind of taken aback by that – how dare someone else tell me that I’m done? I am not done. But that person has never been Stuart. He's always had my back and has always had that belief in me.”
In 2018, Thomas definitively proved her doubters wrong, powering through her lane on the Gold Coast to win 200m Commonwealth Games gold.
“That was the real breakthrough moment,” said McNarry.
“Obviously as a coach, when you are telling someone that is the talent they have got and you are trying to convince someone that they belong at that level, well that’s the reassurance that the athlete needed. It was a massive turning point in her career.”
But as momentum began to shift in Thomas’ favour, she found the ad nauseum conversations about her ability had evolved into unwelcome observations about her age. Thomas was 30 when, in April, she finished first in the 200m butterfly at the British Olympic Trials, her time of her time of 2:08.09 firmly placing her in contention for Tokyo.
“People ask, why do you think it’s taking you so long, why are you breaking through late… I don’t really know, is the answer!” she said.
“I followed the flow of what my performance is, I just got better later than perhaps the ‘norm’, whatever the norm is, than what perhaps the usual is in Britain, shall we say. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m old within my sport. The women that I race [with] internationally, they’re my age in my event. So, I feel like I am exactly where I’m meant to be.”
McNarry agreed, adding: “A lot of people have learned that swimming as a sport is getting older. People will be saying if you have not done it by 23, 24 you are probably on the other side of the hill in terms of your performance.
“[On the Gold Coast] Alys was very much a breakthrough in saying, ‘Well, hang on a minute. I am 29,’ and was on the up still at that point and continues to do so to this day.”
Thomas is grateful to the Commonwealth Games for the Olympic prep—and not just the competition part. She remembered: “The first time I was in a village I was like why am I in a little block of flats, and why am I walking to a dining hall? It is quite intimidating. I remember seeing Usain Bolt one time in the dining hall and thinking, ‘what the hell is going on here?’”
The Olympian—she is still getting used to that word—is trying to keep more composed these days, but it is proving a tough ask. “These childhood dreams I’ve had, watching all the way back from Athens, Beijing, London.” said Thomas, who is part of a generation of athletes who have seen the fortunes of Team GB transform over the past two decades with the support of National Lottery funding, helping Britain become one of the best sporting nations in the world.
“This one is going to be me. This is going to be my chance, my dream. It is going to be real. I’m trying not to let it all run away. It is still going to be a 50-metre pool. Same size, same blocks, lane ropes. It’s all the same. It has just got a fancy logo on the sides. But I’m hell bent on enjoying every single second of it.”
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