If life had panned out slightly differently, Henrik Christiansen could have been starring on the stage rather than preparing to visit Rio for his first Olympic Games.
“I did a lot of theatre when I was younger, while I was working out exactly what I was best at, and really enjoyed it,” says the 19-year-old Norwegian swimmer. “I had a great time putting on plays, but I eventually I had to choose that or swimming, and it was a tough decision at the time.”
Fortunately, Henrik has no cause to regret his choice. Five years after focusing his attentions on the pool, he served notice of his enormous potential by winning bronze medals in the 400m freestyle and 800m freestyle at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Nanjing. He has gone from strength to strength since and, with Rio just around the corner, cannot wait to test himself at the highest level.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. “In some ways you have to try not to think about it too much and regard it as a regular meet, because you can’t pressure yourself by thinking that if you mess up you’ve got four years before the next one. But of course I’m feeling it, I’m just so happy to have qualified and to be a part of it.”
There’s no doubt competing in the Youth Olympic Games gives you that extra motivation. It gives you that sense that your Olympic dream might just become a reality, and as it went on I began to realise that I might just be an Olympic athlete.Henrik Christiansen Norway
In truth, qualification was never in doubt. Henrik has been in tremendous form since that summer in Nanjing, frequently beating his personal bests and taking silver in the 400m at the European Championships in London earlier this year. He believes the Youth Olympic Games were fundamental to his rise and says the feeling when stepping up to receive his medals has left him hungry for more.
“The 400m freestyle was the first medal event on the first day of the swimming competition,” he remembers. “I knew I was capable of making a time that would compete for a medal, but I swam almost two seconds behind my personal best and even though I was delighted to be on the podium it was a slightly bittersweet feeling. I don’t think any of the Norway staff had expected me to win a medal, though, as there wasn’t really anyone watching me!
Xinhua News Agency/Zhao, Peng
“A lot more of them came to see the 800m though, and after being fourth or fifth with 50 metres to go I took it home strongly and captured the bronze with a good finish. That felt wonderful – to be able to turn around to the scoreboard and see your name among the top three is an incredible experience.
“There’s no doubt competing in the Youth Olympic Games gives you that extra motivation. It gives you that sense that your Olympic dream might just become a reality, and as it went on I began to realise that I might just be an Olympic athlete – not just a youth Olympic athlete. It was a really important step, and not only for me – a lot of the swimmers I competed against in Nanjing will be among my toughest opponents in Rio.”
Henrik’s appreciation of the Youth Olympic Games was further heightened by the arrival of the winter edition of the YOG in his native Norway earlier this year. "I think [Lillehammer 2016] kind of opened the eyes of the regular Norwegian guy to the fact that there is a thing called the Youth Olympic Games, and that it's actually pretty huge. I don't think a lot of Norwegians knew about the YOG back when I competed in 2014, it was pretty new at the time but a lot of people have really opened their eyes to it."
Although Henrik is very much his own athlete, there is one obvious example to follow. Chad Le Clos, the South African who won 200m butterfly gold and 100m butterfly silver at London 2012, was a star of the first ever Youth Olympic Games in Singapore six years ago, winning six medals. There are few better examples of the pathway that the event offers to those eyeing success at senior level.
“If he can do it, I can do it as well,” says Henrik. “He’s a great inspiration – a good youth athlete who then took giant leaps onto the world stage. It just shows that it’s completely possible to do well at the Youth Olympic Games and then compete strongly at the Olympics.”
Henrik has sent Norwegian records tumbling as the Games draw closer and there is growing optimism that he could add to the slim haul of medals – Alexander Dale Oen’s silver and Sara Nordenstam’s bronze at Beijing 2008 – that the country has won in the pool. But he is happy to keep a low profile and believes that, with plenty of years still ahead of him, reaching personal goals would be enough of an achievement in Rio.
“We’re not going out and talking about medals,” he says. “We’ve been talking about times, and if I do my best ever at the Olympics I will be really satisfied with that. I’m not sure I can be in the fight for a place on the podium this time – it’s going to be really tough in the long distance events, I’m sure of it.”
While his days treading the boards are long gone, could his experience in the theatre provide any help to draw upon when the going gets tough in Brazil?
“I actually think it really helped me,” he says. “It’s like when you do presentations at school, as well. I don’t get too nervous competing in front of a lot of people. I maintain my cool and I think the theatre contributed to that.”
Don’t bet against him thrilling the crowds when he takes to the world’s biggest sporting stage this August.