Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Team GB swimmer Freya Anderson: I will try not to geek out at Tokyo Olympics

The freestyle sprint specialist talks about comparisons with British great Rebecca Adlington, and the pressures of competing against her heroines at Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.
By Andrew Binner

Freya Anderson will have to suppress her inner fangirl at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.

As a 100m and 200m freestyle specialist, the Brit grew up idolising female sprint swimming icons like Cate Campbell, Federica Pellegrini, and Simone Manuel.

Over the past few seasons, Anderson has turned into something of a formidable talent herself, landing World, European, and Commonwealth medals.

In what are arguably two of the most fiercely competitive aquatics events in the Olympic programme, Anderson will have to put her feelings of admiration to one side when she lines up against her evergreen heroes in Japan.

I think I'm still like a fangirl inside,” the 20-year-old admitted at the virtual British Olympic swimming team announcement and prior to competing in the European Aquatics Championships (10-23 May). “But then you have to remember just to stick to your own guns.

“I’ve just got to concentrate on my lane. I’ll try not to let it get to my head too much and start geeking out.

I think I need to remember that I have to make my younger self proud.”

“When I started swimming, I didn't like it that much!”

Despite being considered a potential medallist at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Anderson’s younger self didn’t even like the sport.

“When I started swimming, I didn't like it that much,” the 6-foot-3 sprinter continued. “I think I was just because I was such a shy child. I wasn't too fond of going to training and stuff.”

That all changed when young Freya, born in Birkenhead just across the River Mersey from Liverpool, started training at the Wirral Metro swim club, where she was taught to believe in herself.

But perhaps the most significant stage of her development, both as an athlete and a person, came when she enrolled at nearby Ellesmere College boarding school as a 16-year-old.

“The chances that I got there, including joining my Sky Sports scholarship, gave me such a confidence boost,” she said. “It made me really independent. I don’t think I would have been able to do all of this if I hadn't been to Ellesmere. I would have been too shy I reckon!”

Representing the Ellesmere Titans at the 2019 British Swimming Championships, where Anderson won gold in the 100m and 200m freestyle.
Picture by @Ian MacNicol

The next Rebecca Adlington?

Her increased focus on swimming quickly yielded results.

Anderson won the 2017 World Junior Championships 100 metre freestyle title in Indianapolis. A year later, she became the European Junior Champion in the 50m and 100m free.

No woman has won an Olympic gold medal in the pool for Great Britain since Rebecca Adlington’s 400m and 800m victories at Beijing 2008, and whispers began that Anderson could be the one to end that barren run.

Like Adlington, she won medals at the Commonwealth Games representing England. Anderson claimed 2 bronzes at the 2018 Gold Coast event having just turned 17, before her performances at the 2018 European Championships enhanced her standing further. Competing in the senior ranks, she helped her nation seal two golds and a bronze in the relays, before finishing fourth in the individual 100m free with a new junior European record.

The biggest test of her career came at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships held in Gwangju, South Korea, where she would have to face her heroes.

A brilliant performance saw the then 18-year-old make the final of the prestigious 100m free. In the end, she finished eighth with Simone Manuel, Cate Campbell, and Sarah Sjostrom taking the gold, silver, and bronze medals respectively. But simply making the final was an invaluable experience for Anderson, while proving that she could challenge the best in the world.

She also got to take home a medal, after helping Team GB to bronze in the 4x100m mixed relay, alongside Adam Peaty, James Guy, and Georgia Davies.

Adam Peaty, James Guy, Freya Anderson and Georgia Davies won bronze in the mixed 4x100m Medley Relay at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

But how do comparisons to the great Rebecca Adlington now sit with Anderson?

Oh, gosh, I couldn't say!” she tells us, modestly. “I definitely looked up to her a lot with her winning two golds at Beijing 2008 and two bronze at London 2012. Those are some serious shoes to fill.”

Staying grounded at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Anderson was in the form of her life in 2019, winning two golds at the short-course European champs, and recording a long course personal best of 53.31 seconds in the 100m free, and a blistering 1.56.06 in the 200m free.

Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak’s joint winning time in the 100m at the Rio 2016 Olympics was 52.7 seconds, while Katie Ledecky took the 200m in 1.53.73.

Given the young Brit’s extremely fast progress, and the extra year of physical development she has benefited from due to the coronavirus-enforced delay to the Olympics, it is not unthinkable that she could improve her time by one, or possibly even two seconds in time for Tokyo.

However, she won’t be getting caught up in the hype just yet.

I've actually tried not to think about it,” she said of her gold medal prospects. “It would be really good to produce some world-class times, but mainly I'm just looking forward to competitive racing again.

“I've been struggling with injuries since just before Christmas. So to be back where I left off before this pandemic, back in 1:56 and 1.53-low is kind of a relief. Now I just need to try and get a proper injury-free training block in.

“It would be really nice to medal in both my events.”

In 2020, Anderson made the decision to start training under Dave McNulty in Bath.

It was a difficult decision due to the progress she had made in five years at Ellesmere, but one she felt could reap benefits for years to come.

I'm putting all my trust into my coach Dave,” she said. “Hopefully I can just see what I can do at this Olympics, and then maybe our eyes are set on the Paris 2024 Olympics.”