Ariarne Titmus: "I don't really see myself as a famous person"

Australia's world champion swimmer on her mouthwatering Olympic duel with Katie Ledecky, why she finds training "draining", how she coped with nine weeks out of the pool, and the joy of having a puppy.
By Ashlee Tulloch and Rory Jiwani

Ariarne Titmus stunned the world, and herself, by defeating five-time Olympic gold medallist Katie Ledecky at last year's FINA World Championships.

Now the 19-year-old has her sights firmly set on her first Olympic Games.

In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, Titmus explains how she transformed herself from a girl who "was never strong" into a worldbeater in the pool, life with her dog Lucy, why she admires tennis hero Rafael Nadal, her relationship with "brutally honest" coach Dean Boxall, and conquering her fear of swimming in the ocean.

The 400m freestyle world champion is also the first subject of the Olympic Channel series Athletes to Watch for Tokyo 2020.

She hails from Tasmania, with her family relocating to Queensland in 2015 to enable her to further her swimming career, and shared with host Ash Tulloch how it felt to return to full swimming training at St Peters Western Swim Club in Queensland in May, but why continuing COVID-19 travel restrictions mean she could be limited to competitions at home in Australia before the Games.

Olympic Channel (OC): Hello, how are you? And what time is it where you are?

Ariarne Titmus (AT): I'm good. It's just past seven at night-time. I got home from training about an hour ago. I had a shower and here I am.

OC: And how many training sessions have you done today?

AT: Two swim and then I did a gym this morning as well. Tonight was a bit chunky, pretty tough. But it's good... once you finish a good session it feels good if you do well.

On Monday nights at the moment, only the distance group is training, so those that do the longer events. So it's targeted a bit more towards us in that sense. So it's a long one, a lot of threshold type of stuff. And yeah, it was pretty tough but it's good to be done now for the day.

OC: At seven o'clock, a lot of people are really starting to wind down for the night. But you're having to train multiple times a day so how do you find winding down in the evenings?

AT: It's hard sometimes. We're not quite back to normal training hours that we were before COVID but usually when we were training leading up to the Olympics, sometimes I wouldn't get home to close to eight o'clock at night. And then by the time you have to eat and shower and kind of cool down for dinner, it is pretty late by the time you get to bed.

And then for us swimmers, we're back up again in the morning. So I think you have to really learn to have a skill to, you know, wind down your body as quickly as you can. Because sometimes, especially in summer here where I live it gets really hot in summer, it's hard to kind of cool down to go to sleep. But you kind of learn how to deal with that.

OC: Are you a morning person?

AT: Yeah, I think I have to be as a swimmer. I never used to be, but now I struggle to sleep in and I go to bed early now and I actually kind of like the lifestyle. Up here, it gets light really early in the morning so in summer it's nice and sometimes you can pop down to the coast and be up early and go to the beach. So I love living here.

I live in one of the warmest parts of Australia but, at the moment, we're kind of feeling the cold a little bit. I think today it got to about 24 degrees [celcius] in the day, which is probably warm for a lot of other places. But compared to our summer, it was pretty cool today.

OC: Today was supposed to have been the final of the women's 400m freestyle in Tokyo? Have you thought much about that?

AT: Yeah, I did think it about a little bit. We've obviously known for a while that the Olympics wasn't going to be on [in 2020]. We found out in March and so I've definitely come to terms with that decision and it was the right decision. But then I didn't think about what would happen when I actually got to the point of time where I was supposed to be there.

On Saturday, I was kind of thinking where I should have been right now. And then our time, Australia time, last night, I would have had the 400m heats and I was a little bit upset thinking about, you know, where I should have been. But now thinking about it, I'm really excited that hopefully we all get to be there next year and try and perform there.

OC: How long did it take you to come to terms with the fact that a goal that you'd been focused on, all of a sudden, the finish line had just been moved a year later?

AT: It was tough. The Olympic cycle is four years, as everyone knows, and the past four years I'd kind of trained to time everything to try and peak right now. So within literally a split second, that all changed. For most athletes, we prioritise our sport and we put the rest of our life kind of on hold to train and recover and be professional athletes. So for that to all stop so suddenly... because the day that we found out that Australia wasn't sending the Olympic team was actually before the Olympics got cancelled (sic) and that same day our training got stopped as well so everything kind of happened at once.

At first, when I first found out, I was like, "OK, it's going to be next year." And then about an hour later, it just kind of hit me and it did take me a couple of weeks to kind of come to terms with it. But then as COVID got worse and worse, I definitely thought that it was the right decision.

Ariarne Titmus with her puppy Lucy during Olympic Channel interview

OC: [Spotting a dog coming to join Ariarne] Oh look, who is this?

AT: This is Lucy, my puppy. And my sister's here too.

OC: Lucy's adorable. How busy does Lucy keep you?

AT: She's very naughty sometimes. She's a very yappy little puppy, but she's good. When I'm at home and alone during the day, she naps with me every day. So it's good to have her company, especially as we have a pretty boring lifestyle when we train twice a day. So when I'm at home during the day, it's good to have her with me to keep me company.

She's definitely a part of the family. I think Lucy's a part-human. She kind of gets in on the conversations and you don't really realise when you get a pet how attached you get to them. But if something happened to her I'd be devastated. She's such a cutie. And yeah, I guess in the day, when I'm here alone, she is my companion in the day to talk to and sit on the couch with and watch some telly. Especially in lockdown, it was good to have her around because it gave me something to do. I could take her out for walks or just have her around the house. It kind of kept things interesting and she's always keeping us on her toes. I definitely think having a pet would have helped people in lockdown.

OC: For people who have never owned a pet before, it's probably like, "Oh, cute dog." But someone's got to pick that poo up...

AT: Well, because I'm not usually here in the morning and late at night, I don't really see what happens with her food routine and my sister is the one that takes her for most of her walks. So in lockdown it was actually good to try and get involved in Lucy's lifestyle, I guess. I got to take her for some walks, got to be around when she got fed. And I actually saw a bit more of what happens when you take care of a pet. And yeah, we love her. She's a pretty good girl.

OC: What did you think of your Athletes To Watch episode which has just gone out on Olympic Channel?

AT: I think it's great. I think it's a really great insight into my life and it was really fun filming it. I don't really think about my life as extraordinary, I feel it's pretty boring the lifestyle of an athlete. But then for people that don't get to see what we do every day, it can be quite interesting for them.

A lot of people don't actually understand how much time goes into being a professional athlete and not just training at the pool, but going home and recovering and also doing other things that kind of get your mind away from the sport. So I think it showed a little bit of me cooking there - that's something that I love to do to kind of get my head away from training and to kind of relax and, you know, try and experiment with food. That's something that I also really enjoyed delving into in lockdown.

I'm lucky that I had a hobby like that where I could just cook all day, but then I had to stop because then I was making so much food and I was like, "I can't eat all this."

OC: It's very clearly about athletes who people should be watching for Tokyo. Do you feel like this is a bit of extra added pressure?

AT: A little bit. It gets your name out there a little bit more. I mean, if people watch it and take a liking to my life, or swimming, it may mean that I have a few extra people that follow along my journey and might have wanted to watch me at the Olympics which they hopefully can next year.

But I don't really feel much more pressure. I feel like the pressure that I put on myself, or my coach puts on me is more than what anyone else does, including the public and the media and that type of thing. I just feel like it puts me more out there and hopefully I can get a few more supporters from it.

OC: Do you feel a little bit vulnerable when you're opening your doors and you're doing interviews. I know your father works in media but do you feel a little bit sensitive about the fact that you're revealing a bit more of yourself?

AT: Yeah, a little bit. And especially on larger platforms you have to be careful with what you say. But I try to be as open as I can and try and let people see the real me and my personality and kind of really just say what I do actually feel. And I think if we act like that in front of the media, hopefully people take a liking to you. But I'm not too worried about sharing too much of my life, you know, or about my swimming. I think people enjoy hearing stuff like that.

OC: Young people around the world look up to you and other athletes. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to tell your story so people can understand how you got to where you are?

AT: Definitely. I'm quite young compared to a lot of other athletes. I made my first Australian team when I was 16 so I've kind of grown up on the team with older swimmers. And I feel like I can relate to a lot of younger swimmers as well because I had to try and be an athlete and traveling the world while still finishing school. So I think that they can relate to me as well.

I hope that people can look up to me and I can share advice and they can learn from how I dealt with that. It was pretty tough to be in school while being a professional athlete. That was really hard to juggle so hopefully if I give advice, I can be quite relatable and I hope that I can be a great figure for people to look up to.

I try to be my complete self and give real advice and show who I really am in front of people. So hopefully people can, you know, feel a bit of a connection and want to support me and understand my journey.

I don't really see myself as a famous person. You know, I just feel like I'm quite normal. But I think about the way I looked up to other athletes and people in the music industry and I guess I'm a little bit like that for some people. It's a little bit strange.

Ariarne Titmus at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea

OC: You're an individual swimmer but you've got a whole bunch of team-mates around you. What's the culture like within Australian swimming?

AT: I think it's so great and I think it's getting better and better. When I first made the team at the end of 2016, there was a great team and I had the best time. And then I think every trip I've been on each year since the group has just bonded even more. I think especially last year at Worlds, we were such a tight group and I think that's why we performed so well.

Everyone gets along so well. We all trust each other. We all want each other to perform as best as we can, not only for Australia, but for each other and for ourselves. I really, really enjoy going away on the trips. I've made so many great friends from swimming and I'm so lucky to have lots of friends that I've made through the sport.

OC: Is it a lonely sport?

AT: People could think that swimming is lonely in the sense of not having to worry about team-mates to perform or that type of thing. I think even though it is an individual sport and we're racing for ourselves, I train in a huge squad. I have so many people in my squad here in Brisbane and I've got so many great mates that I swim with and that keeps me going.

We are such a close group and when everyone pushes hard together every day, I don't feel like it is an individual sport. We're all doing the same session, we're all trying to achieve the same thing and that's something that I really enjoy about swimming, my squad. Back here, it's really great. The culture is just amazing. And in that sense I feel like it is a little bit of a team sport when you get to train with a great bunch.

OC: We got a little glimpse of what your training sessions are like. Let's talk about your coach Dean Boxall because he was very vocal and excited.

AT: Yes, Dean is so crazy. He's the best coach, though. He knows exactly what to get out of each athlete. All of his athletes, including myself, need different buttons pushed to get the best out of them. With me, we're really close, I think we're great mates as well outside of our coach-athlete relationship. I look up to him as, you know, even a father figure a little bit.

He just knows how to get the best out of me. It's pretty tough, some of the stuff he says. He pushes pretty hard and he's brutally honest and the standard that he sets me is really high. And some days I don't meet it and it's tough. He's never going to back down, though. He does it so that I can get better. But it is not only physically draining, it's mentally draining the standard that he sets me.

When you guys see the series, you'll see he's quite vocal at training if I don't hit a time or I'm a bit off. I might just be tired but I didn't make our target at training and he's tough in that sense. But he wants me to be the best and I obviously want to be the best so he does what he does to try and do that.

"I don't think a lot of people could cope with his personality or the way that he coaches. But I handle it. It's tough, but I handle it."

OC: Often with athletes and coaches, there's a lot of things that are almost unsaid. Do you have that kind of connection?

AT: Yeah, definitely. We have such a close bond. When I first started training under him, we kind of clicked really quickly and he understands me so well and my personality. I think that's why I've improved and that's why my training's really improved because of that connection we have as people and our personalities. I think that is really important, especially in an individual sport, where each person has their own different plan for their races.

I believe you have to have a really great connection with your coach and they have to understand what you want to achieve and you have to both be on the exact same page and have an amazing level of trust. I think I really have that with Dean and I think that's why we work.

OC: What's the toughest part of training?

AT: Learning to back up double days as there's not much time to reprieve during the week. So Sundays and Saturday afternoons is really the time when you have to get your maximum amount of recovery but it's tough when you're in a big block of training. You know, you're pretty exhausted.

Some days it's such a slog to get to the pool and have to perform again. I think the mental pressure to perform as well is really tough with the standard that's set at training, especially leading into a major meet. Some of the time standards in training that I have to make a pretty tough and I think Dean sets them for me to fail. And, you know, that's just the standard that he sets.

But I think definitely having to back up day after day after day and try to perform every day is the hardest thing. A lot of sports could probably have more variation in their training but with swimming it's very similar every session.

OC: So what keeps you going? What is it that gets you out of bed on those mornings when you're tired or makes you go do that second session?

AT: I think the main reason is I just love swimming. I loved swimming ever since I was little. I remember I was never afraid of the water and I started training in a squad when I was seven. And I still love the sport, maybe even more than what I did when I was little. And then just the added bonus of getting to be able to travel and represent my country and do great things also drives me and obviously making friends as well. Now that I'm in the thick of it, obviously I want to achieve amazing things and I set big goals for myself and that's something that also motivates me.

But, you know, underneath all that, I think just loving my sport is the reason why I do it.

OC: You had nine weeks out of the pool. What was that like for you?

AT: Well, it was so crazy because it was a nine-week break that none of us expected. I told myself, "I'm going to do something every day and stay as fit as I can." I tried to stick to that as best as I could so every day I either did like a dry land circuit at home home where I went for a run or even just a walk. But I tried to do something to keep as active as I could. Especially with lock down, getting outside and doing something was really good to do.

But by the end, I got a little bit unmotivated and I did really want to get back to the programme. It's tough. The longest break I've ever had in my entire career is two weeks. And so for me to have a nine-week break, it was like a long haul back into training. I'm really just starting to kind of feel a lot better in the water now.

I think the feel for the water is the thing that you lose the most when you were out. I mean, you can try and maintain your physical fitness as much as you can, and that comes back relatively quickly. But you can't really describe to a person that's not a swimmer this feel for the water that we have. I felt so 'unco' (uncoordinated) when I got back in the pool - like my arms and legs didn't work together. But that's coming back now.

OC: What were you were doing training-wise to try and maintain a certain level of fitness?

AT: We were given gym programs from my strength coach and we had to do what we could at home. I was doing a lot of weights and core stability and that type of thing. That was really the only kind of training I could do other than going for a long run... I actually got a treadmill as well to have in my garage in case it was rainy one day and I really wanted to go for a run. Or just going for long walks.

I went for a couple of ocean swims. I'm pretty lucky that I only live an hour from the coast and even though it was close to winter, we could still swim in the ocean. The water was still really warm so I went for a few ocean swims. And that was really good. That was a big step for me because I'm so scared of sharks. I never usually go out past my shoulders or if I can't touch the bottom. So that was big for me to go out past the surf and swim in the ocean. Any little thing that touched me, I'd kind of freak out a little bit. But I got used to it in the end.

The strangest thing was I randomly swallowed a gulp of water and it was so salty and I never even realised how salty the water was until I was in the ocean swimming. And then the chop trying to get you swimming in with the waves. I was swimming so skew-whiff, I'd bring my head up after a few strokes and be like swimming the other way and I'd have to straighten myself back up.

It was weird but I was just happy to be in the water swimming. I think I did that maybe four or five times in the whole nine weeks. It started to get a bit chilly towards the end of the lockdown. But that's something that I was really proud of doing.

OC: Who is your favourite athlete outside of swimming?

AT: Oh, that's easy for me. I'm a massive Rafael Nadal fan. I love tennis and I love watching Rafael. I just love his passion for the sport, his passion to win and his fight.

I've been wanting to go down to the Australian Open in Melbourne and see him play for so long. And I was planning on doing that next year after the Olympics - Dean was going to let me go down to miss training. But now the Olympics is next year it's like, "No, I can't!" But I love watching him play tennis. I think he's great.

OC: So if you were to bump into him in the food hall in the Athletes' Village in Tokyo, what would you say to him?

AT: I don't know. I think I'd be a bit starstruck. I think I'd be too scared to go over. I don't know!

Ariarne Titmus is a big fan of Spanish tennis hero Rafael Nadal

OC: What tips do you have for any young swimmers aspiring to be like you?

AT: Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. I was told when I was younger. I mean, I was never the most talented swimmer. I got where I am because I trained really hard from such a young age and I was never strong. I was always quite a finely built girl. I never had any strength and I finally started to build some build some strength.

When I was younger, people never thought that I would be successful in swimming. So I think if you believe you can do it, do it. Train hard and be dedicated. And that's the way to go, I think.

OC: 2018 was a big year for you. What started going right for you?

AT: I don't know, I just think I really hit momentum in training. 2018 was actually quite a tough year for me. You know, those three trips - Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacifics and World Shortcourse Championships. And I was also finishing Year 12 so to fit that in was really tough.

It was my third year with Dean and we'd really made great progress the year before making my first long course team. And then I just really clicked into gear. My training just progressed and I got stronger. And I think that's why I just had the improvements that I did. But looking back, 2018 was a fun year.

OC: And then in 2019, beating Katie Ledecky wasn't a bad achievement. How did that feel?

AT: It was so exciting. I mean, obviously, everyone out there in women's middle distance freestyle probably dreams of beating Katie. She's set such a high standard and she's amazing. And I didn't think I would. Honestly, I didn't think I would beat her last year. I thought it would be tough. I thought maybe this year at the Olympics it would be, you know, a really great battle between us. But I was actually surprised to win.

I still remember touching the wall and it was so exciting. It wasn't the fact that I'd beaten Katie, it was the fact that I'd won. I think everyone that's a swimmer dreams of becoming a world champion and to be that year crowned the best in the world was something that I was really proud of.

OC: Ledecky is the biggest name in women's swimming and now you're mentioned in the same breath as her. How does that make you feel?

AT: Well, firstly, I think it's such a huge honour. I remember watching Katie swim in Rio. To think four years later that I would be the person that's battling it out with her is so crazy to me. But, you know, I know I've worked to get here. But I think that that does actually add a little bit more pressure.

Sometimes it's good to be a bit of an unknown name and to pop up out of nowhere and do something great. But now people know who I am and people are cheering for me and wanting to see a great battle between us. People expect to see a great performance. So that's also another added bunch of pressure.

I think with this extra year we have to wait for the Olympics, the build-up's going to be even bigger because I'm not going to get to race Katie for another year.

"I think people are going to build up our rivalry even more and more. And that's going to be even more pressure. But I think I deal with it well."

Ariarne Titmus shocked the swimming world when she beat Katie Ledecky at the 2019 Aquatics World Championships in Gwangju, Korea.

OC: When you had that nine-week break from the pool, were you thinking about what Ledecky and your other rivals were doing?

AT: A little bit because it was tough here. You know, I think Australia did really well at keeping cases at a minimum. So everything got locked down really quickly. And there was no way we were allowed into the pool or anything. But I know in some other countries, even though their country was in lockdown, they were still able to train. Governments let Olympic athletes train or people could find a friend's pool to swim in or they would just find a way around it and they could continue training. I was a little bit worried about that because, you know, sometimes then people are on an uneven playing field. But then I thought there's still over a year ago until the Olympics so I wasn't really fazed by that.

To be honest, I feel like the break was good for me mentally because I had gone through such a massive prep. And if the Olympics had been this year, after them I would have had a huge break to refresh for the next prep. But for me, I think it was good to have that mental break to kind of be really ready to be back at training to go for another year.

OC: There's even less time between Tokyo and Paris, isn't there? Have you thought much about that?

AT: Yeah, I have a little bit. And I'm excited, actually, because it means the prep between Olympics isn't as long. So we don't have to wait as long to go to the next Olympics. And I think it just kind of it excites me that we're going to have another Olympics three years later.

When you think about it, World Championships are every two years and that goes around so quickly. So to think that the Olympics is only, what, three years later now is really exciting. I feel like that time's going to go so quickly.

OC: No Australian woman has won an individual Olympic swimming title since Stephanie Rice in 2008. What would it mean for your to end that barren run?

AT: I mean, that just sounds so crazy because we have so many amazing female swimmers in our country. And to think that no one has won a gold medal since Steph is a little bit strange, you know. But I would be such an honour. I don't know. I have. I've honestly never really thought about that. I've just thought about doing the best that I can. And if it happens, it happens.

I'm a bit of a swimming nerd but I don't really look into history that much. But I still find that so crazy that no girl has won a gold medal in swimming since Steph. I feel like we have so many great girl swimmers.

As a little girl, I dreamt of going to the Olympics and winning an Olympic gold medal. I mean, it's a little bit naive saying, "I'm going to win a gold medal at the Olympics," because you don't understand what it actually involves. But to go through everything that I've gone through and to know that most other athletes have gone through everything that I've gone through... And to win would be, you know, I think it would be so amazing to reach the absolute pinnacle of my sport.

"I try not to think about it. I'm not there yet. I've still got a bit of time to go but I hope that it happens one day."

Stephanie Rice won gold in the 200m and 400m individual medleys at Beijing 2008 and the 4x200m freestyle relay

OC: it's probably getting a bit late where you are. What time do you normally go to bed?

AT: At the moment, I'm trying to be in bed around 8.30-9. I'm up pretty early but it's about a quarter to eight here so it's not too bad.

OC: Do you read before go to bed?

AT: I don't read. I should read a little bit more. I try to read books on people and their lives and that type of thing. But I don't read too much.

I try to get off my phone before I go to sleep. Sometimes it's hard. I'm a bit naughty some days. I stay on my phone a bit too long and I'm on it right before I go to sleep, but when I'm in those tough days, I try to get off it as early as I can to help me wind down.

Most nights I just eat my dinner and then sit on the couch and lie with my family and watch a bit of telly for about half an hour and do my night-time routine and then jump into bed.

When I'm at a meet, I get off social media the day before I race and then I'm off it all the way until I finish racing. I might pop on to post a photo and then I delete the app again. I try not to look at any of the feed because some people can say nice things, but then some people can also say some nasty things and I think that that's really not good to look at when you're racing.

And also it takes up so much time. Knowing me, I would probably be on my phone mindlessly instead of napping in the day. That's an excuse that I probably shouldn't have but, you know, phones just take up too much time so when I'm racing I try to avoid that as much as I can.

OC: I've read that you listen to the same playlist of music every time before you race. Tell us about that.

AT: it's my mum's playlist. Well, she's a bit of a headbanger. She has in her playlist Bon Jovi, AC/DC, INXS, John Farnham... then, you know, a bit of Adele will pop in there and I skip that one. It's a bit too quiet before I race, but I feel like I listen to that playlist every time because it's like my mum is there with me. She is probably the most competitive person I know aside from Dean, my coach. She's so competitive, more competitive than me, she's nuts. So I feel like I have her with me.

I'm not usually a rock music fan, but for some reason listening to it loud before I race kind of just gets me going. And I think also because music nowadays is so different from what it used to be when my mum was my age. So I think listening to some older music is kind of a bit more refreshing. And yeah, I enjoy it. And I'm a little bit superstitious in the sense that I try to create the same routine before I race so I like to keep that the same.

OC: It must be nice having that connection with your mum before you race. Can you hear your family cheering you on when you're racing?

AT: Well, at the big meets, I can't because they're way up in the stands. But definitely I see them in the grandstands. I remember when I was on the podium at Worlds last year, I got to wave at them, they were sitting up there all with the Aussie parents. And that was really cool to be able to see my parents in the stands and know that they were there when I won, which was so exciting for them. You know, this is as much their journey as mine. They've put so much into my swimming and, yeah, it was great to have them there.

OC: And what would it mean to your family if you were able to come away with that Olympic gold, given all the sacrifices that they've made for your career?

AT: I think it would mean so much, you know, for us coming from a small town in Tasmania down at the bottom of Australia. For them to have a daughter to end up at the Olympics and do something great I think would just make them so happy.

I'm so lucky that my parents have never put pressure on me to keep swimming. If I wanted to say tomorrow that I wanted to stop, I think that they would support my decision. And I'm so grateful for that, that they just want to support me and what makes me happy. So for them, I think if I got to achieve something great at the Olympics, it would kind of be like a thank you a little bit to them. I know a lot of parents put a lot into their children with their sport, but to move across the country for me is something that I'm really grateful for.