Molly Renshaw half expected to face Yulia Efimova in the 200 breaststroke in Tokyo although a quick glance at the entry lists soon confirmed the Russian will only compete in the shorter race.
“Who knows?” said Renshaw a few short weeks back: “She seems to wrangle her way around things so I’m not holding my breath on that one yet.”
Renshaw may well have swum against Efimova for the final time with the Briton having claimed the European 200 breaststroke title in Budapest in May in 2:21.34 ahead of Lisa Mamie of Switzerland (2:22.05) with the Russian one place and 0.01 ahead of her team-mate Evgeniia Chikunova in third in 2:22.16.
Efimova tore it up around Europe at the Mare Nostrum series following the continental showpiece across all the breaststroke distances.
However, third place at the Russian trials behind Chikunova and Maria Temnikova means she will only race over 100m with the Briton concentrating solely on the four-length race.
An abiding memory of Rio 2016 were the cat-calls and jeers for the woman who was cleared by FINA to compete on the first day of the swimming programme despite four positive tests for meldonium.
That followed a 16-month ban for DHEA in 2013.
Of course, she’s not the only swimmer to have violated doping rules but a lack of humility and little apparent remorse has ensured the spotlight has remained shining on her.
For Renshaw, the problem isn’t just a doping swimmer but what to the Briton appears to be a less than robust approach by the authorities.
“I know a lot of people frown upon her swimming and I definitely don’t agree with the way FINA and everyone have dealt with her situations in the past.
“She had a massive presence in Rio: the whole suspense of whether she would be swimming, a week before no-one knew whether she would be there.
“She was getting booed coming out for her Olympic finals so it must have been hard for her but I can’t say I have any remorse.
“She has a big presence: she has achieved so much, whether she’s done it clean or not, she is still a name in swimming.”
Frustrations And Fears
The issue of athlete expression has never been far from the surface this year, Adam Peaty and Duncan Scott welcoming Team GB’s declaration that they wouldn’t stand in their way should they wish to protest.
In Tokyo, expressions and protests during competition, in the Olympic village and during ceremonies — including medal, opening and closing ceremonies — are still barred under Rule 50.
Athletes can speak about their feelings in the mixed zone, the media and broadcast centres, during interviews and at team meetings.
Scott took a very public stand against dopers when he refused to share a podium with Sun Yang following the 200 free medal ceremony at the 2019 worlds in Gwangju.
The Chinese swimmer took exception and confronted the Briton, finger-pointing and ranting in his face.
Sun, though, will not be in Tokyo to defend his 200 free title as he was handed a suspension of four years and three months by CAS as the whole tawdry saga over a smashed vial of blood came to an end.
Scott had followed Mack Horton’s example with the Australian having made a similar stand after the 400 free.
However, in the end of meet press conference, the pair were accused of bringing the sport into disrepute and a report in the Australian Daily Telegraph revealed FINA had considered stripping Horton of his medal.
Renshaw understands why there may be some wariness given athletes who stand against doping apparently suffer a backlash.
“After doing that on the podium Duncan got so much hate on social media – he was getting trolled by bots.
“I remember he ended up logging out of all his social media accounts because all the comments were almost like death threats and stuff.
“They were obviously sticking up for Sun Yang but it’s such a hard topic and you see things like that and that’s when you almost lose faith in the sport.
“Where the dopers are getting less repercussions than the people who are trying to stand up for it.
“It’s silly that clean athletes are being threatened to take their medals away for standing up for what’s actually right and the dopers are getting away scot-free.
“It’s completely mixed up.”
Former FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu embraced Sun on poolside at Rio 2016 despite the swimmer’s drug violation back in 2014.
For Renshaw, the sport needs to do more to deter the dopers.
“It’s massively frustrating. Obviously there are drug cheats out there: whether they’re being caught or not I think it’s common knowledge that in every sport there is doping.
“I don’t think swimming is as bad as other sports – whether that’s because we aren’t up to scratch with testing, we just haven’t caught enough people or we are genuinely a cleaner sport.
“It is frustrating and there is definitely room for improvement and I think things like the ISL where it’s a new league where convicted dopers can’t compete – that’s a step in the right direction but there’s much more that could be done.”
Tokyo will be Renshaw’s second and last Olympics and possibly her final major meet.
She has been retained by the New York Breakers for the International Swimming League (ISL) Season 3 but this is her last chance to get on the Olympic podium.
The 25-year-old, who is coached by Dave Hemmings at the National Centre Loughborough, lowered her own British record to 2:20.89 at the trials in April to go into Tokyo second in the rankings behind Tatjana Schoenmaker, silver medallist in Gwangju, who set an African mark of 2:20.17 in April.
Renshaw is rarely one to talk of her chances come the big race but is more likely to speak of process.
This time, however, she says:
“I’ve never been that kind of swimmer who will go around saying’ I’m going to go here, I’m going to win gold, I’m going to break world records.’
“But I do think that swim at trials (British record 2:20) has given me the confidence that there is a lot more to come this summer.
“I went to Rio and I was over the moon with making the final, I was just so happy to be there and I accepted whatever happened I’d be happy with – and I was and I really can’t complain.
“Obviously being so close to the medals was hard but I think that’s what drove me the past four – well, five – years and I’d love to be there on the podium.
“I think that going 2:20 puts me in good stead to do that and it’s definitely a goal going forwards.”
It will be Renshaw’s third Olympic cycle although she missed out on London 2012 because of a selection policy that meant she swam inside the required standard but at the wrong meet.
Just 16 at the time, Renshaw has credited that experience with making her stronger and came a year after she made her debut at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.
Looking back, Renshaw says she’s been a completely different athlete in each cycle with her 2012 experience shaping her through Rio and Tokyo.
The 2016 cycle represented the biggest changes of her career as she moved to the National Training Centre Loughborough to be coached by Kev Renshaw and Hemmings.
She left the comfort of living with her parents to becoming independent which can be a shock to many a youngster although Renshaw says it was the kick-start she needed and one that worked as she was constantly lowering her PB each time she got in the pool.
Renshaw though identifies the cycle into Tokyo as the best and most consistent and especially over the past year, despite Covid.
It gave her and the rest of Hemmings’ group time to perfect the technical skills for which he is renowned resulting in her British record at trials and subsequent European title.
Also a member of Hemmings’ squad and one who has long had ties with Renshaw is Abbie Wood, who went 2:21.69 at trials and will also take on the event in Tokyo along with the 200IM.
Renshaw used to swim with Wood’s sister at the Derventio eXcel club and laughed as she recalled:
“Our friendship group was quite tight-knit and Abbie was always the younger, annoying one – we were like ‘oh God, Abbie’s in our lane’.
“Honestly she has matured so much now and me, her and Sarah (Vasey) are so close within Loughborough.
“We’ve all been on this journey together for so many years.”
Maintaining Focus Until Predicted Peak
When Renshaw set that national mark, it led to an interesting exchange between Kev Renshaw and Hemmings which revealed they’d predicted she would peak in her mid-twenties and the challenge would be to maintain her interest and commitment.
She was completely oblivious to this and instead wondered if she had peaked in Rio and was getting too old for the sport.
So too was she waiting for the big drop in time that her training seemed to promise but feared that she may keep – in her own words – drifting on 2:22s.
She kept going though partly because she knew there was more there to unlock and also because of the belief Hemmings had in her.
She set personal bests in short and long-course in both 100 and 200m and became British record-holder but still she wasn’t quite getting the rewards she sought.
Then came 2020 and a chance to reboot.
“So having that mental refresh last year from Covid and being forced out of the pool for a couple of months, it got into my head ‘give it one last shot, whether this is your last Olympics or whether you go on beyond’.
“It was a mental reset: you don’t get this chance very often so this year I’ve just really put everything into it that I can and I’m glad it’s finally showing in my racing now.”
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