Lost on the dark side of the Olympic moon

James Parrack first represented his country in 1988. Two weeks ago he came second in the Atlanta trials, outside the qualifying time, and now the former British record holder realises that his swimming career is over
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Two years ago, the fat lady cleared her throat but didn't sing. Two weeks ago, I finished second at the Olympic swimming trials, outside the qualifying time for Atlanta and a whole choir of fat ladies broke into a deafening Hallelujah Chorus.

So ended eight years of international competition that began at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. The Olympic trials that year were staged in Leeds where, to everyone's amazement, I beat Adrian Moorhouse before he went on to win the Olympic gold medal in Seoul two months later. My career would include two Commonwealth Games, a World Championships, a Commonwealth silver medal from the 1990 Games and a British and Commonwealth record for the 50m breaststroke in 1992. That year I made the qualifying standard for the Barcelona Olympics, but finished third at the trials behind Moorhouse and Nick Gillingham. Unfortunately, as international rules allow only two swimmers per event, I was excluded. Both Adrian and Nick went on to swim in the Olympic final.

The British Olympic Association are anticipating 320 athletes will make the team for Atlanta and much will be made of how over the moon they all are. Some will then retire. But 300 more have carried the same dreams for the same four years and will not go. Some of these will also retire and very little will be made of the darker side of the Olympic moon.

After a disappointing performance at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, many people told me to quit and that the fat lady was in good voice. If she had been singing, I didn't recognise the tune. But their concerns did not fall on deaf ears and I had to re- evaluate what I was doing and why. I had to consider retirement and to continue. If I was to continue, I had to go back and answer three basic questions for success: Did I have the talent? Did I want to do it? And would my training get me there? More crucially, there was a fourth question: as a 27-year-old in a young person's sport, was I just too old?

My answers were unequivocal. Certainly I had the talent, strongly believing that the 1988 Olympics had proved my ability. And since a career can often have great highs followed by equally deep lows, I saw the disappointments of '94 as a natural part of a cycle which, as surely as spring follows winter, would be followed by success. By then I had known the bitter and the sweet taste of each and I was like a junkie craving the high of success. I knew I had more to give and rejected the thought that this was the end. I was still strongly motivated to perform my absolute best on the biggest sporting stage in the world. The '96 Atlanta Olympics was less than two years away and that was the only place I wanted to be.

While the successes had fuelled my desire, the disappointments had forced a more mature perspective on exactly how to achieve it. To counter the depressing and austere routine of long, hard hours in the pool, I secured a part-time job with Yorkshire Water, timetabled around my training and competitions. As an athlete who knows his sport, I had confidence in the training programme and in my own ideas on those factors which influenced success outside the pool. Furthermore, the male sportsman will rise to a physiological peak in his late twenties, and at 27 I was clearly not too old. I just wasn't ready to give up everything I'd dreamed of, hoped for and trained for. Swimming underpinned everything I did; every early night, every time I stayed relatively sober at weekends and every well- balanced high-carbohydrate meal I ate. Without this anchored, goal-orientated life, what would I be left with? I was not ready to walk away from my dreams and retire into an unfamiliar scene. They say the great crime of humanity is not to set your targets too high and miss, but to set them too low and hit. I still had some arrows left to shoot.

Having addressed my concerns and been given a green light, I mirrored, signalled and manoeuvred myself back into the transatlantic motorway traffic heading for Atlanta. The reasons for success would be obvious and failure would be devoid of the destructive "what if" or "if onlys" which one can regret forever.

The careers of great performers appear to have all the ups and downs of a calm day on the Med. Those of many breaststrokers can resemble the choppy waters of the Atlantic and mine seem to be the stuff of surfing legend off Hawaii - some huge highs, many more equally frightening lows. I have always preferred the poetry of the melancholic's dream - on one occasion, just once, I wanted to be the best in the world. In 1990, I climbed to third in the world. Just 0.6sec away from the world record, I was close enough to touch it. But just as Salieri was gifted enough to be tortured by the effortless genius of Mozart, so swimming was playing with me. Top sports people eat a lot of bananas and on my next step I slipped on a discarded banana skin and suddenly the scene had changed.

I felt I had assembled the necessary climbing gear and I prepared a full- scale assault on the mountain of my own ambition. I didn't know that I would have spent six years trying to re-climb the elusive summit of 1990 and never quite make it. Back then I was securely roped to Moorhouse and simply followed him up. He had been an outstanding guide and inspiration to me, offering help and advice along the way and it all seemed so simple.

Adrian retired in 1992 and when I tried to find my own path to the summit, I got lost in the fog. Wandering in circles, I could remember the view, but not the way up. Finally, there comes a time when you have to let go and call off the search. But you have to go on too long to know that there is no more; to be certain of one's own peace of mind, rather than to live the rest of your life wondering "what if".

And now with the 1996 Olympic trials over, my arrows are all gone. It was depressing to hear such an uplifting rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the race; to truly have come to the end of the road and be forced to accept there is no "Big One", that the glory days between '88-92 are all there was; that I'm just not as good as I hoped I was going to be, and that, crushing though it is, I probably won't ever make the transition from being a question on A Question of Sport to answering the question on A Question of Sport.

As I grieve the passing of an enormous part of my life, the sportsman formerly known as "That Swimmer" can also look forward with confidence. The lessons I have learned in swimming are relevant to any career. To be a strongly motivated, goal orientated and highly disciplined individual, with a clear understanding of "what it takes" will be a significant advantage to my future.

It is ironic that in the 1996 trials, I swam 0.02sec second slower than I did at the trials in 1988, with a complete roller-coaster cycle of highs and lows in between. Even though the best bit was at the beginning, it has been a thrilling ride.

The Olympic dream: You train as hard as you possibly can for four years and sometimes the dream comes true. I grew up as an ordinary kid in an ordinary school in an ordinary town with an ordinary swimming club. At 18, I arrived in Leeds and put in that little extra to have an extraordinary career. But you can't throw a six if you don't pick up the dice.