It is hard to name anyone in world sport in quite as hot form as Sarah Sjöström. In the past two years, the Swedish star has won Olympic gold, claimed three individual world championship titles and triumphed four times at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow, giving her a record career tally of 23 European medals. From the football pitch to the swimming pool, Sjöström is used to winning, and here she explains just how and why she keeps doing it.
You cannot stop winning at the moment; would you say you feel more at home in the water than you do on land right now?
Erm, yeah, that’s fair. I feel very confident in the water, it’s good for me (laughs).
For example, I started to play a little bit of pool this year and I feel like I am getting quite good at it. I train a lot in a centre in Turkey and there is a pool table there. It’s quite fun; when we have time we have some matches. I play against my teammates and my coach, and I am the best already.
Even though you say it was a struggle at the very beginning, did you fall in love with swimming quickly?
When I started racing, that is when I fell in love with the sport. When I found out how easy it was to see that you are becoming a better swimmer, when you do faster times in the pool, when it’s obvious to see the progress, that was when I started to love swimming.
When I started though it was a struggle: I got water in my nose – all that stuff. But I think I learned pretty quickly. It is the same with other stuff I do, I learn fast.
Did you play a lot of other sports as a child?
I didn’t try too many other sports. I would do them once or twice, but I didn’t really enjoy team sports, it was not really my thing. I got so annoyed by what other people were doing all the time, so I was not happy (laughs). I needed to do an individual sport.
It’s still the same: team sports are still a big challenge for me. I love playing soccer but I play everywhere, I have no idea. I am an individual athlete even when I play soccer; I am all over the field. I want everyone to give me the ball.
What is it that gives you the edge to make you an Olympic and world champion?
I just like to compare myself to myself. I just want to be better than what I was before. I want to find ways to be faster in the pool. That is my motivation. I never say, “I want to win this medal and that medal.” I am more like, “I want to break this record.” I look more at my times than anything else.
There is always something I can improve. Like this year, I haven’t broken any world records but it’s all been about getting faster times in training. I try to always find something.
Would you say you are a perfectionist then?
No. I wouldn’t say I am a perfectionist. I am quite chilled actually. Even in the pool, I try to relax and not stress too much. I don’t think about every detail; I try to just go with the flow and not think too much.
I feel like the technique comes naturally for me. If I think too much about my technique I swim slower.
What is it that gets you out of bed and into the training pool every day?
My biggest motivation is that this is a dream, to have this as my job. I get to work hard every day in the pool, to try and find ways to get faster. I travel, I see new places and meet new people all the time – that is the motivation. I never want to change this job.
It’s a great life. It is easier when everything goes smoothly, but I do really like swimming, with or without the medals. I really enjoy the journey to the medals. That is the most important thing.
Before Rio it was like, “OK, I have already won gold”, because I was really enjoying the journey.
Are the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games a big part of the journey?
I do think about them. I am trying to build a good base in training already, putting a bit more volume in training so I can work more on the details when I get closer to Tokyo.
You recently tweeted about how there is not a single woman in the latest top 100 highest-earning athletes. How surprising and shocking is that?
It’s quite weird. I am very surprised. I hope it’s going to change very soon.
In swimming, we are very equal. If you are a guy or a girl you get the same bonus if you win the World Cup. It’s nothing different. More sports should be the same. It needs to change.
As you are a keen interior decorator, can you tell us about your apartment?
My apartment looks like an interiors magazine. I don’t have the typical white walls or anything, it’s very special. There’s a lot of blue and green on the wall, a very elegant style, a lot of flowers and nice design furniture.
It’s very cosy; blue and green makes you a little bit calm. White is the colour that you get more stressed with. Nature was an inspiration. I am super proud of it. It’s so nice to have something unique.
And how is your fear of flying?It is getting better. But it’s a challenge. Sitting close to people makes me a little bit stressed. If I have three seats to myself I am a little bit calmer.