Linford Christie’s Olympic and World Champion days might be behind him, but that isn’t stopping the 61-year old from breaking new sporting ground.
The former sprinter only learned the swim shortly before the pandemic began, and has since started a brand new love affair with wild swimming.
Jamaica-born Christie talked to us about how he learned to love the water, and how he looks after himself as an ex-elite athlete…
What was it like learning to swim a couple of years ago?
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I just really enjoy it, and I didn’t think it was possible to learn in such a short space of time. It took me 12 weeks, or even less, and although it was slow at first, it really picked up.
“I found it very tiring, not gonna lie, but once I got into the swing of it, it wasn’t so far away from running. In some senses, the technique is the same – you’ve got to make yourself tall, streamlined and aerodynamic. I think being an athlete allowed me to pick it up quicker, and process instructions better.”
Were you previously very aware of not being able to swim?
“I didn’t give it too much thought, because I was never too afraid of water. I could sort of swim a tiny bit underwater, if you can call that swimming, so I had to learn the strokes and how to do more than 20 metres.
“I made sure all my kids could swim, so the motivation was there for me because I didn’t want to be the worst in my family. Once I got into it, I loved it and still do.”
You’ve taken up open water swimming too. How do you make sure you stay safe while doing that?
“I would definitely never enter the water without my wetsuit, because it gives you extra buoyancy. And I recently discovered a bag that blows up into a float. You should never go wild swimming on your own anyway, but for added safety, it’s really good.”
What do you find so appealing about wild swimming in particular?
“I’m still very much an amateur, but I find it easier to swim in open water than in a pool. I used to think water was just water wherever it was, but the density definitely varies, and I think swimming outside is way, way easier.”
Do you find it good for your wellbeing, mentally and physically?
“Oh definitely, you just have time to think. I learned in Shepperton Lake, and there’s nothing out there but open water, maybe the odd duck and swan. It’s so peaceful and tranquil – just you and nature, and you gliding along without a care in the world. In that respect, it’s completely different from track and field.”
What are the other main ways you look after your wellbeing?
“I eat right, and I still go to the track and lift weights, even though I don’t run. To be in the right mental state, you have to have the right environment, and I can understand the struggle people had in lockdown, when you couldn’t really exercise.”
Did you continue to exercise intensively after you retired from running?
“When you’ve been exercising all your life, you get to a point where you’re glad you don’t have to, and then one day you look in the mirror and think: ‘I need to do something about this’. It keeps me sane and helps me sleep, but when I was running I was obsessed with it, and I was competitive all the time. Now I exercise as and when I feel like it.”
You didn’t really see sprinting as a career until your mid-20s. Was there a world in which you never became an athlete?
“Yeah absolutely, I was trying to do some of the things that young people do. Once you start specialising in sport, you have to start living it 24/7, and when that happened it took a long time to change habits.”
Looking back over your career, what have been your biggest highs and lows?
“Highest: winning the World Championships and the Olympics. The lowest would be being accused of drugs when I didn’t do anything, but you can’t dwell on that, you’ve just got to get out there. I do think I could have done more in the sport than I did, but I don’t know if I’d change anything. You make mistakes, and you learn from them.”
How are you enjoying coaching now, as opposed to competing?
“I love it, but it’s stressful. I always think back to my coach and wonder how stressed he must have been. When the race starts, sometimes you just think: ‘Why can’t you just run that little bit faster?’ It’s easier said than done!”
How hard has it been for young athletes preparing for the Olympics during the pandemic?
“In the UK, we’ve struggled. If you look at the times people are running, the Americans are outperforming everyone because in a lot of places, they didn’t really have a lockdown. You worry about the young people coming through, because in track and field, all you’ve got is your body. People think you can train alone, but you need your training group and your coach. It’s taken a toll.”
What are you most looking forward to in a post-pandemic world?
“I think freedom of travel, without 10 days isolating; 10 days in the life of a sportsperson might as well be 10 months.”
Have there been positives to getting a bit older?
“Honestly, the only negative about getting older is you’re nearer to dying. My dad always said: ‘The young may die, but the old must’, but otherwise I’m really enjoying my later life. I can just step out and enjoy life.”
Linford Christie is supporting Zone3’s Embrace the Escape campaign, which promotes participation in Open Water Swimming for improved fitness and mental wellbeing (zone3.com).