OLYMPIC GAMES: Hardcastle holding back sands of time

Guy Hodgson meets the British swimmer who has given up the typing pool for another chance to win an Olympic medal
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The Independent Online
For those with a long memory there might be a recollection of a little girl, her hair cropped punk-like and dyed red, white and blue standing on the podium to receive swimming medals at the 1984 Olympic Games. You might remember, she cannot. The Los Angeles Games are a blur to Sarah Hardcastle.

The hairstyle she remembers - these things are important to a 15-year- old - but the ceremonies in which she received a silver and a bronze have been wiped from the brain. "I was too young to take it in," she said. "I was unbelievably blase. Winning Olympic medals seemed a breeze."

At 27, she knows differently. Possibly more than most because Hardcastle, the girl who believed the Olympics was a doddle became the woman who found swimming an unbearable chore. She retired for six years, missing the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics, and only came back when she realised the delights of being a secretary at Ford Motors, of being normal, were not as glamorous as she had believed.

"When you get there the grass is not always as green as you think," she said. Invited to present prizes at the British trials in 1992, a spark was reignited and closer examination proved it to be more than a pipedream. "I looked at the times and realised the event had not moved on." She had though, getting married, and her husband, Lee, tipped the balance.

"He said to me: 'You have this rare talent and here you are being a secretary. If you don't try you'll never know how good you could have been.' I think he brought it home to me that there's nothing worse than the words 'what if'."

So 12 years on from appearing to be on the verge of greatness and after a spell where she could not even face a short, social swim, Hardcastle will be attempting to end a career in blaze of bronze (at least). She says she would not be competing in Atlanta if she thought she could not win a medal and in the 800 metres freestyle, if not the 400m and the 400m individual medley, she has a chance.

In all probability, the time that will win gold will not be faster than the 8min 24.77sec she clocked in the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games 10 years ago, her problem is whether the 6ft frame she now possesses can emulate the speeds of the person she describes as the "five-foot nothing nutter" that was her former self.

Then she would happily plough through 70 miles a week in her local 25- metre Southend pool. Wiser and more careful in her preparation now, the Sandhurst housewife has cut down the distance work.

"When you're older you appreciate how hard you have to work to get what you want," she said. "Looking back I suppose I must have worked hard then, too, but it seemed so easy. I was very flippant about everything.

"I train with the emphasis on quality now. Physically I can't do the number of miles I used to do because my body won't take it any more. It's 10 years on and it's like trading a car. I wish I could get a new motor. I need a 10,000 mile service."

When she first returned, her mind needed re-tuning as well. Years of being at someone's beck and call as a secretary had eroded her chirpy self-confidence and for a spell it appeared that her comeback would be in the same category as those ageing has-beens who become a parody of themselves.

She heard the whispers and went to a hypnotherapist to silence them. A good job appears to have been done, too, because Hardcastle now has an irrepressible energy that would cause envy in a teenager. Some people giggle a lot as a self defence mechanism, she barely completes a sentence without breaking into one, but hers has the a genuine ring of enjoyment.

"I may not be a better swimmer now than I was," she said, "but I don't feel worse either. In Atlanta people will be looking at the Americans, I'll be a complete outsider. Which is fine. No pressure. There's nothing to lose this time."

Surely she lost that with her self-induced absence during what would have been her peak. "I'll never regret retiring, she answered firmly. "I wouldn't have met my husband for a start and I think I'd be less happy. If I was born again I wouldn't change very much for sure."

And the streak of non-conformity continues. At Los Angeles it was the haircut, at Atlanta it will be a tattoo of a fish on her right shoulder. "It marked a part of my life," she said. "It was kind of a statement because things were changing dramatically. I was just expressing myself."

Just as she expects to express herself in Atlanta. "It's taken me three years to get back to what I'd describe as a good standard. All I'm looking for now is speed. I'll get there." If she does, she will remember the medal ceremony this time.