'Sport is a fun way of teaching success and failure'

Mark Foster, 38, is one of Britain's most successful swimmers. He will be competing in his fifth Olympic Games in Beijing next month.

What did you want to be as a child?

A pilot.

What did you realistically think you'd end up doing?

I was one of those children who never had any direction. I never thought about what I was going to do. I just tried something and if I liked it, I did it.

So you became a swimmer because you liked it?

I did it because I was good at it and for the social life. At school, training was a social thing, a way to see my mates. Getting up at 5.30am was never a problem.

When did you start swimming lessons?

I was five. My dad had been thrown in a pond as a child and was petrified of water; he wanted me and my sisters to enjoy it, so we started lessons. My teacher said I was a natural. By 11, I was the best of my age in the country. When I became the national senior record- holder at 15, I thought, "Now I want to be the best in the world." I didn't think of it as a career, but then I also never thought about doing anything else.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Yes. And I never needed anyone to tell me because the clock at the end of the lane told me.

What's the best decision you've made?

To come out of retirement. In 2006, I said I'd retired because my life was like being in a tunnel. I finished one meet and looked around for the next one. Stopping for 18 months meant I could step back and look at why I did things and there was no pressure on me to perform.

Any regrets?

I wish I'd gone to university in the US – their system is so competitive and the coaching is so good. At 17, I went to Arizona State University for a recruitment weekend and loved it. If I'd had a mate who was going, I would have gone.

What motivates you?

Challenge and competition, I'm not afraid of losing. Sport is a fun way of teaching success and failure.

Who are your heroes?

Steve Redgrave for what he achieved in the time he achieved it, and I admire people who have a go and aren't afraid of failure.

How do I get to be where you are?

Be realistic. It's a lot of hard work and dedication. People say I'm lucky but I train hard. Some people are so driven that when they fail, their world falls apart. My focus is the Olympics, but I've got distractions. I see my mates, play golf, spend time with my dogs.

What's the best perk of your job?

Seeing the world and making friends. I'm also fortunate because I'm in great shape. Britain is turning into an unfit and unhealthy nation and it's frightening.