BENGALURU: When Stephanie Rice bagged three gold medals with world record timings in the Beijing Olympics, the Australian became a swimming sensation overnight. But shoulder injuries prevented her from a repeat in London. As event ambassador for Sunday’s TCS World 10K Run, she spoke about her career, life after swimming and other aspects of sport.
Which gold medal was special?
All three were different. The 400m medley was on the first day of the Games and it was my first race at such a level. This was my dream since I was a young girl. I achieved my biggest dream in my first race. Before the second (200m medley), I had flu. I was not going to race but told myself I should try. When I won that race, it was empowering, gave more confidence. Next was 4x200m freestyle relay. I can’t pick a favourite but the first one probably is the most momentous because it was the first one.
Why did you decide to retire early?
I had mentally decided around two-three months before London Olympics that it will be my last. I had two shoulder surgeries, needed a third and didn’t have time to fix it before the Olympics. I was training, and it got worse and worse.
Did you think of a comeback?
It never crossed my mind because so many Australian swimmers made comebacks and I just thought it was crazy. If I have been training since I was seven and fit as I can possibly be, what makes me think that having a year or two off and starting again would make me better than before.
World record timings are getting better…
I don’t think it is going to stop because there are so many improvements in technology. The suits that you wear, how you train, nutrition, gym work and everything keeps improving and getting better. It’s only natural that athletes will get better and better. Sometimes, you have someone like a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt come along and no one will go faster than them for like 10 years.
Are things getting too complicated with technology?
It can get complicated. People who have never played will give you so much data. There has to be a balance between education and technology. My coach and I were more into hard work but were open to try new bits and pieces.
What is the hardest part of being an Olympic athlete?
It was going from being a normal person to being someone that everyone recognised overnight. No one can prepare you for that and no one can tell you what it is going to be like. It was just a very big change and a lot to get used to.
How hard was it to come back to normal life?
It was hard because I like the media, the events and competing. Nothing will ever feel the same, walking out to an Olympic Stadium with the screaming crowd and all the energy, thinking about all the preparation and the race I prepared four years for. Winning and achieving does not get replicated.
What do you think of Bollywood?
I would love to do a Bollywood movie. But I don’t know Hindi. I tried for a couple of months, but all I can say is namaste. I am a huge fan of Bollywood.
India on the world stage
The Rio Olympics showed how woefully behind India is. Rice, however, feels there is potential. “There is no reason why India cannot be as good as China. There is same population and wealth. You need to put in funding and have good programmes, I would love to be a part of. A country this big cannot be without talent.”
Doping in sports
She feels that though drug cheating is a part of sport, it’s not correct to generalise. “There are always swimmers who are not clean. It’s not right to generalise and say that a country is cheating. I don’t think we can ever get rid of it. Cheats are ahead of testing and will always be. What they test for is only what they know to test for. There are new things coming around. I don’t know how sport can be made cleaner.”
Liking for India
Rice is a big fan of India, Bollywood and yoga. She is overwhelmed by the support from India. “On social media, I always had a big Indian following. I had never been here until last year. I wanted to see if there was possibility of doing work inspiring people to live healthier. I was fortunate to get a role as commentator here for Rio. Cricket is big in Australia and India and that is another common love.