When breaking up is hard to do

Kerry Shacklock talks to Keith Elliott about the pain of giving up synchronised swimming
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Kerry Shacklock cried for months when she lost the love of her life. They had been together almost every day since she was just 11. In their 12-year romance, she had been national champion six times, collected two Commonwealth silver medals, won the Europa Cup and finished seventh in the Olympics. It is true that there was a well-publicised affair with Steve Backley for more than a year, but even the hunky javelin thrower couldn't drag her away from her real love.

And so, when she decided to give up synchronised swimming last year, it broke her heart. "I cried for months," she admitted. "There was just a huge gap in my life." Even 12 months on, she still fights back tears as she recalls the days when her only worry was whether her barracuda back pike somersault and combined spin had been executed perfectly.

Shacklock's problem is not unique. Many top swimmers, coached from an age when they are still worrying about their multiplication tables, are like fish on a floor once they hang up their costumes. Suddenly, they are in their twenties with no career, few prospects and little idea of how to earn money. It is a serious problem, and few sports address how to integrate yesterday's heroes into a world where everything doesn't go swimmingly.

Shacklock, 24, is probably luckier than most. She did, after all, stay on at school to take A levels. She is very attractive and has done some modelling (including an appearance in last year's third best-selling calendar, featuring sports stars in skimpy outfits).

She is taking a sports therapy diploma, working in a gym as a fitness consultant, doing some massage work, and running aerobic, Callanetics and circuit classes. She is even undertaking a little synchronised swimming tuition. But she still lives with her parents and is diffident as a 14- year-old on her first date. Life is still a little frightening.

It all started at the local swimming pool. She watched a demonstration of synchronised swimming and got interested. "At the time, it was just something to do." Five years later, she was a member of the British Olympic squad. Other honours followed: fourth in the junior world championships and the European Championships, national champion (a title she was to hold for six years) and two silvers in the Commonwealth Games.

Helped by sponsorship from a shampoo company and a swimming-pool maker, she swam for six hours a day, every day. It paid off with second place in the Europa Cup and seventh in the Olympics, where she had not been expected to make the final. In 1993, she won two bronze medals at the European Championships, and the following year won the Europa Cup, as well as collecting two silver medals in the Commonwealth Games.

But it all went wrong when her sponsorship dried up. Shacklock admits that her own shyness probably didn't help the quest for a replacement. A synchronised swimmer, however good, is not as attractive to sponsors as a 100-metre butterfly prospect. Shacklock suddenly found that she did not have the money to continue using a private trainer. "My mum is a secretary and my dad's an electrician. They have been really, really supportive, but they just didn't have the money to pay for all my needs. I couldn't get a job because I needed so much time for my training. I had no money to do anything. Early in 1995, I finally made the decision that I couldn't go on, even though I believe I could have swum in the 2000 Olympics, because I was still improving.

"It was very hard to adjust and there were a lot of tears. I still feel bitter about it, the way it made me feel at the end of the day. Perhaps it was my fault because I took it so seriously, but it just left me out on a limb. It's taken me this long - a whole year - to work my life out. People didn't understand how hard it was." She looks away and blinks a lot. It still hurts.

We are talking in the front room of her parents' neat semi in Yateley, Surrey. There are few clues that the woman who once dominated British synchronised swimming lives here. You feel as if she does not want to be surrounded by reminders of her past life. She still keeps the trophies, the decorative costumes and even the noseclips. But they are put away. It is a life she loved too much to be constantly reminded that it is no longer around.

But wait a minute. What's the matter with the woman? We're not talking serious sport: this is synchronised swimming, mermaids splashing round to music in a giant goldfish tank. How can anyone get all emotional about something so frivolous?

Many people who should know better have held the same view. The former International Olympic Committee chairman, Avery Brundage, did his best to get it dropped from the Games altogether, calling it a frivolous water ballet. Even Princess Anne has dismissed it as "synchronised flower arranging".

If you are one of those who thinks it is about as sporting as worm-charming, you're in for a shock. Synchronised swimming is one of the top three sports in fitness terms, demanding flexibility, strength, grace, cardiovascular fitness and agility. You must be able to hold your breath underwater for a couple of minutes, swimming all the time, and those dolphin-like leaps must be accomplished without touching the bottom. It has been described as running a 400m race without drawing breath.

Furthermore, the sport has an avid following, with several thousand enthusiasts in this country alone. Last year's world junior championships attracted entries from 34 countries. Ever since it joined the Olympics in 1984 (before 1890, it was known as scientific and ornamental swimming, and only performed by men), it has always been one of the first sports to sell out.

The problem comes because of our belief that sports stars should look as if they are suffering, and those happy grins give totally the wrong impression. Anne Clark, chairwoman of the English Synchronised Swimming Committee, says: "When you have been underwater for a minute, you are gasping for breath but you can't let the judges know you are showing stress." Hence the smile, which is actually a clever way of gulping in air.

But the critics have won a small victory. Clark feels that the best way to counter negative publicity is to emphasise the fitness aspect and play down the glitz. So her committee has banned sequins on costumes, although internationally they are still allowed. "I think this is a shame," Shacklock says. "In competitions, all the other girls have these amazing costumes and we have dowdy ones. I think people like the glamour of it."

But that's all behind her now. Shacklock now believes she can watch a competition without feeling the pain of not being there. "It will be weird, watching the Olympics, and sad because I would really love to be there. But I'm out of it now, and I won't ever try to go back."