Having overcome glandular fever and responded to the blow of missing her home Olympics by winning two silver medals at Rio 2016, Jazz Carlin is clearly a champion at beating adversity.
But the Welsh swimmer admits the physical and emotional exertion of her Olympic exploits in Brazil left her “drained” and “numb”, and feeling as if she “didn’t have much of a purpose”.
An extended break – which saw her miss this summer’s World Championships – revitalised her love for the sport, as has the discovery of open-water swimming.
“People think I’m crazy and ask if you get punched,” says Carlin, referring to the event’s brutal reputation.
“I’m terrified of jellyfish as well, but it’s all new and a really fresh test.”
Incorporating swimming’s 10km marathon event alongside her regular 400m and 800m races – as well as potentially the new 1500m distance – could see Carlin challenge for as many as four medals come the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Next week, the 27-year-old will compete in her first major 10km competition at the Fina World Cup in China – and Carlin says she’s “excited” about what is likely to be her biggest challenge to date.
Rio 2016 and post-Olympic blues
While Adam Peaty’s 100m breaststroke Olympic title and Team GB’s 26 other gold medals dominated the Rio 2016 headlines, Carlin’s incredible performances should not be overlooked.
When competing in the same events as the practically invincible five-time Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky of USA, silver is essentially the best any athlete can hope for.
“At times winning the two medals doesn’t feel real – it was the best experience of my life, but then I realised it was over,” says Carlin.
“People talk about the post-Olympic-blues, but until you’ve been there and gone through it you don’t understand.
“Ever since missing London 2012, reaching Rio had been my focus; I just wasn’t prepared for how much it was going to take out of me and I felt a bit lost after.”
Carlin enjoyed a well-earned break after the Games but questions about her future soon emerged.
“I’d just be walking to the shops and someone would shout ‘well done at the Olympics, Jazz!’ which was a bit of a shock as you just almost forget about it,” she reflects.
“People would keep asking ‘what next?’ and I wasn’t sure. Rio had only just happened and I wasn’t ready to think about Tokyo.”
Carlin never considered quitting despite revelling in her post-Games “normal life”, which saw her “stay up past 11pm” and have “Friday nights down the pub”.
She experienced nagging guilt about being out of the water so felt ready to return to the pool in the autumn of 2016, only to discover something was not quite right.
“Every time I was pushing myself hard I’d have a little injury or a little illness and my body was just saying ‘no, you need more rest’,” the two-time European champion says.
Victory in the 800m at British Championships in April was enough to secure a place at the Budapest Worlds but relinquishing the 400m and 200m freestyle titles suggested she was not quite back to her best.
Carlin and her coach Dave McNulty spent weeks agonising over the right course of action before coming to the “difficult” decision to withdraw from the Worlds.
“It was really tough sitting out of the Worlds and then watching it on TV. It was the right decision, though, as I now feel a lot more alive. I have so much more energy, am refreshed and it’ll help me in the long-run for sure.”
Finding “purpose” again
Her first dip in the lake came this summer, when one of the team’s sport’s scientists at the University of Bath invited her along to an open session at Vobster Quay, 15 miles away in Radstock.
Beginning in the warmer months helped Carlin’s introduction to the sport, as once temperatures plummet the sensation of brain freeze – similar to the experience of eating too much ice-cream – can occur.
“Sometimes it’s really cold here and people do think I’m quite nuts, but it’s refreshing and I’m loving every minute of it,” says Carlin, who swims around 80,000 metres a week.
Training and racing experiences are markedly different in open water events, though, and unlike in pool swimming, where you have the safety of your own lane, almost anything goes in marathon swimming.
“You get punched, you get kicked and you get scratched – then there can be dead animals floating about,” warns GB Olympic marathon swimmer Jack Burnell.
Carlin has sought advice from Burnell and two-time open water world champion Keri-anne Payne, who have backed her to succeed once she develops her race tactics.
“I’ve only done two races, but one in Wales was a quite brutal introduction as people were swimming over me,” she reflects.
“Then I saw these huge jellyfish which I’m terrified of and I felt like it was chasing me and trying to make me swim faster!
“I was nervous, but I haven’t felt like that for years and it was actually quite exciting so I want to keep testing myself and see what I can do.”
Carlin made her Commonwealth bow for Wales at Melbourne 2006 when she was just 15 and the ‘friendly Games’ retain special significance for her.
She would win silver and bronze at Delhi 2010, but victory in the 800m at Glasgow 2014 made her the first female Welsh swimmer to win gold in the pool for 40 years.
“I always feel really proud representing Wales as it’s a really small team but it feels like a family when you come together,” she says.
Marathon swimming is not part of the programme for Gold Coast 2018 in Australia next April, meaning her winter training will focus on pool events.
“It does help that the Games are in Australia with the nice weather and the beaches,” she said. “I want to be at my best to race the Australians and the Kiwis and be on that podium again.”
History beckons at Tokyo 2020
Only one swimmer in Olympic history has won medals in the pool and open water at the same Games – Tunisia’s Oussama Mellouli at London 2012.
Carlin could therfore become the first woman to achieve the feat come 2020, while there is also another new event for her to consider – the 1500m.
“I think it’s about finding balance,” says Carlin, who adds that “listening to her body” will be key over the next three years.
“I’ve the Commonwealth Games and European Championships next year and then I’ll start thinking about how it could go for Tokyo.
“The danger with training for the longer distances is you can lose the speed you need for the shorter ones.
“I think I have a really great opportunity to be a part of open water and still try and get on that pool team, and it’s quite exciting to think that you could make history in an event.
“I’m very happy with two silvers, but you know it’s Tokyo and why not go for gold, hey? I’m a bit greedy I guess.”
Carlin will race in the Chun’An 10km World Cup in China on 15 October before competing over the same distance in the Hong Kong leg of the series on 21 October.