At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Sarah Sjöström became the first Swedish woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming when she set a new world record in the 100m butterfly, with a time of 55.48 seconds. Will she be able to maintain her reign in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020? This question was answered after the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju.
In 2009, Sarah Sjöström made her mark by winning the 100m butterfly at the World Championships in Rome when she was just 15. Ten years later, in Gwangju, she was defeated in her favourite distance by Canadian Margaret Macneil. "I was happy enough to win a new medal," she explained. "I was even surprisingly happy to finish second. But I wasn't able to beat the younger generation. I need to get used to it; I was already the oldest in the final in Budapest two years ago."
In the Republic of Korea, however, the 25-year-old regained the upper hand, returning to the podium for the 200m freestyle behind Francesca Pellegrini and Ariarne Titmus, and then again for the 100m freestyle, finishing third behind Simone Manuel and Cate Campbell. It wasn't until the 50m butterfly that she finally took the gold medal by beating Olympic champions Ranomi Kromowidjojo and Egypt's Farida Osman. It was her eighth World Championship win, but in a non-Olympic distance.
On the final day, Sjöström finished the competition with a silver medal in the 50m freestyle, just behind American Simone Manuel. "I'm happy I won those five medals," she said. "I chose a very difficult programme, and I am very glad to have done it. I think it will be a lot easier in Tokyo, where I won't have so many races." Her extremely impressive record includes 17 World Championship medals since her debut in 2009.
"I love Tokyo"
Do these results herald new triumphs in Japan's capital in 2020? "I know what's waiting for me there," she says. "Tokyo is one of my favourite cities, and I know I'll have a good time no matter what happens. I think I have trained a lot and I have faith in the work I have done. I hope the results will come with it." The Olympic Games remain, by far, the most memorable moment of her career. "Becoming an Olympic champion in 2016 was a dream come true," she recalls. "I thought if I didn't win a gold medal then, I would probably never win one. I was very hard on myself. I knew that, if I could, I would be the first female Swedish swimmer to win a gold medal in history. I was so happy to be able to hold up under such pressure."
To achieve her goal, training will be intense. Her week is usually marked by 10 swimming sessions and four additional workouts at the gym. "I also do indoor climbing quite often," she says. "It helps with arm strength. But I won't compete in it at the Olympic Games. I know it is a new discipline and I joked about it on social media."
Thoughts for Rikako
Sjöström will continue to train at Stockholm's National Swimming Hall under the guidance of Johan Wallberg, and with coach James Gibson at the Energy Standard Club in Belek, Turkey, near Antalya. "I really like changing environments," says Sjöström. "I had been practising in the same pool in Stockholm for over a decade and wanted to change a little. It's the best professional environment there is. When I'm in Stockholm, I don't always have time to recover. I waste time on transport and various other demands."
Sjöström is a champion as open to the world as she is to others, as demonstrated by her gesture on the 100m butterfly podium when she offered words of support, written on her hand, to Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, who is suffering from leukaemia. "We wanted to send her a message to show her she was deep in our thoughts. We hope her recovery goes as smoothly as possible so she can return quickly to doing what she loves." One more reason for Queen Sarah to shine next year in the Land of the Rising Sun.