Exclusive! Brazilian swimmer Bruno Fratus reveals why he not only embraces struggle, but looks for it
The 50m freestyle specialist is a two-time individual world silver medallist and one of the favourites to win the event at the Tokyo Olympic Games, but has had to overcome some major barriers on his way to the top.
For starters, the two-time Olympian cuts a smaller frame than most elite swimmers, meaning he had to find other ways to match the efficiency of their long limbs in the water.
He also grew up in significantly more modest training facilities than many of his current international counterparts, and overcame a period of depression after competing in his home Games at Rio 2016.
But the one constant through his career has been his ability to persevere through the tough times, and achieve success when it looked unlikely.
“I think every Brazilian can relate to this fighting spirit, as things don't usually come as easily for us down there as it does for what we call ‘first world countries’,” the 31-year-old told Olympic Channel in a comprehensive interview.
“Thriving despite the struggle, that's one thing I love.”
Growing up an ‘athletic, always sweaty child’
Like many other boys from Rio de Janeiro, sport played a central part in Fratus’ upbringing.
The nation’s first love of football was not a great fit for him.
“I tried a little soccer when I was a kid, and I was absolutely terrible at it!” he offered with a smile.
But armed with some inspiring words from his parents, the determined youngster wasn’t going to let that hold him back from flourishing in the world of sport.
“I was really lucky because I had parents who really believe in the power of sport, of social transformation and viewing ones character through sports. So I was always this athletic child and always sweaty, going from practice to practice after school for soccer, volleyball, basketball, judo, karate, jiu-jitsu, and swimming of course."
"I like to watch fighters coming back from a knock down to win the fight. You know, I can really relate."
Fratus’ early experience in Brazil’s other favourite sporting pastime of mixed martial arts played a key role in developing the warrior mentality that he was to harness as a professional swimmer.
“I love everything about MMA. I love the grind, the weight cutting, it's intense.
“I love the intensity related to sport, like to watch this struggle. I like to watch fighters coming back from a knock down to win the fight. You know, I can really relate.
“I can tolerate a lot of the struggle, a lot of the grind. And I really love it. I mean, I usually often say that you have to have high level results and to be a successful Olympian. You need not only to tolerate, not only to cope with a struggle, but you need to look for it. You need to embrace and love it. So I really consider myself like one of these people.”
Being a natural competitor, there was a particularly enticing aspect of swimming that made it stand out above the rest for Fratus.
“The one thing I loved the most about swimming was that I was able to come back home with four, five, six, seven medals from one competition with all the different events. I thought that was amazing, and that kept my mind into swimming. I was always this extremely competitive person.
“The more medals I could win, the better. Right?”
Fratus breaking the traditional rules of swimming
As the ‘skinny kid’ from Rio started to focus his attention on swimming, it wasn’t long until he came up against his first obstacle in the sport, his stature.
It was also his first opportunity to prove that he could compete at a higher level with his own style.
“Swimmers are extremely tall, like 1.90m, some more than two metres, with really lengthy limbs. But not me. I’m 1.86m, and if you look at me on the street I'm just a regular guy.
“I'm not as tall as those great swimmers like [four-time Olympic gold medallist] Alexander Popov or [five-time Olympic gold medallist] Gary Hall Jr., but every coach I had growing up wanted me to mimic their strokes. Given that, even as an adult, I’m so much shorter than them, the chances are things are going to go extremely wrong for me if I mimic them, right?
“In order to overcome the differences, I thought it was best for me to try and develop my own stroke, something that worked for me. Even though it was completely different from everything the books would teach you.
“I used to get a lot of grief for swimming with a straight arm. That was something never seen before in the '90s. People also used to tell me I was doing it completely wrong by swimming 15 meters under water at the start of the race. Now that’s what every swimmer does!"
“But part of becoming successful in competitive sports is to try and prove those doubters wrong. What I was doing was so different and so far outside of everybody's comfort zone, so I was bound to be condemned at some point." - Bruno Fratus to Olympic Channel
Olympic disappointment and depression
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games should have been the highlight of Fratus’ career.
Going into the 50m freestyle final in his home city as a heavy medal favourite, with 200 million Brazilians willing him on, it seemed like his race to lose.
But those great hopes were dashed with a sixth-place finish - two places lower than his final position at the London 2012 Games.
While he is keen to move on from that result, the adulation and love he received from his country that night left a lasting impact.
“Even though the race in Rio was one of the worst races of my entire career, the moment of stepping behind the blocks and having all that crowd just screaming, yelling my name, and all my family friends there, was the most beautiful moment of my entire career,” the Florida-based star continued.
“I'm pretty sure I'll never feel anything like that again. That hit me in the chest.
“I wouldn't say it was pressure, but you can really feel the impact of that moment. I could have done much, much better than that.”
However, as the dust began to settle on the disappointing race, Fratus began to feel that some of the people closest to him were no longer showing as much interest.
He felt very alone, and slipped into depression.
“It can be really hard when you're walking to the Olympics for the first time with a [good] world ranking, and you completely mess it up in front of your home crowd,” he said.
“And some people, they don't have a single drop of empathy. I'm not only saying it was only the media, but also people close to me that were supposed to be there for me. And they were not, you know?
“I was left to the side by a lot of people that I thought would support me in a situation like that, and I really, really felt alone for a moment. It's easy to support someone when they are doing good, but when someone falls, that is when you see who their true supporters and true friends are."
Bruno Fratus and Michelle Lenhardt: A match made in chlorine heaven
One of those true supporters was his wife Michelle Lenhardt.
Lenhardt represented Brazil in the 4x100m relay at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, before switching sports to bodybuilding, and eventually ended up working as one of Fratus’ swim coaches in the run up to Rio.
In November 2019, Fratus decided to make Lenhardt his full-time coach. This turned out to be a particular masterstroke, as during the coronavirus lockdown it meant they were disrupted less than most other teams.
But was there a danger of swimming overload during that period?
“If you just get locked in quarantine with a normal coach 24/7, telling you what to do and how to eat and how to move, coming up with workouts in the living room, you'd have been the most stressful life ever!
“Luckily, because of our personal relationship, we were able to keep a balance. We end up talking about sports and performance and competition but it doesn't carry the same weight. We'll just be cooking lunch or dinner and we start brainstorming in a much more light and natural way."
“She has been vital. I think once you have someone you truly love and you can and you can trust 100 percent, even though we don't always agree, we're fighting for the same thing. She has this competitive instinct. She’s someone who thrives in competition and chaos, and someone always looks to attack competition." - Bruno Fratus on wife Michelle
“There's never a part of the season where my coach is a little bit unmotivated. I know that every day she's going to be locked in and every day she's going to be willing to work for what we like to call Olympic glory. I mean, it's so important to us that we even have a Greek goddess of victory statue on our dinner table, as a daily reminder of the goals of what we’re working for.
Asked whether Fratus could ever be tempted to also switch sports to bodybuilding after his swimming career, he was resolute in reply:
“That's not for me, man! Bodybuilding is mostly dieting... And I just love food.”
Changing diet and improving lifestyle
Food, in fact, became one of the key lifestyle changes the swimmer made following his Olympic disappointment.
Going against the grain, so to speak, he decided to stop dieting, and instead listen to his natural body cravings.
“I stopped cutting things [out]. I stop cutting red meat, fat, and white carbs like pasta. I mean, you have to agree with me that one of the most beautiful things in life is pasta, right?
“That's when I started to actually get stronger. My training quality increased drastically, I put good weight on in the weight room, and the quality of my sleep improved a lot.
“I still don't drink soft drinks and try to stay away from sugar, but I drink a little wine every now and then, have a pint of beer, and I still eat bread and cheese.”
A change in die alone, however, was not going to help lift the disgruntled swimmer away from his depression.
Professionalism had begun to consume Fratus, and left him craving the feeling of enjoying competition again, as he used to when he was a kid in Rio taking home a plethora of medals every weekend.
“I realised that I was focusing on the wrong things. I realised that I wasn't living the sport the way I would like to live it.
“I wanted to just define my own abilities against the best in the world, and not because I needed to make a sponsor, or a swimming club director happy as part of a contract.
“If I can give anyone any advice, I think you should never lose the feeling you felt the first time you went to a swim meet and you won a medal when you were seven or eight years old. Today I'm 31, training for my third Olympic Games, and it should be the same feeling. The exact same butterflies in your stomach, the same excitement. Wanting to have a pizza night with your parents to celebrate after.
“I lost a little bit of that feeling, which is inevitable to an extent as an adult, but that's something I'm in constant pursuit of."
“So that's when I decided to forget about depression, forget about the plans of maybe retiring after the 2016 Olympics and focus instead on those real loved ones, and start swimming not only for me, but also to replay the support they had for me." - Fratus to Olympic Channel
Taking up meditation
In order to find more inner peace, the Brazilian started practising meditation on the advice of a friend.
He credits the mindfulness practice with helping him better control inner emotions, and channel frustrations in a more positive direction.
“I learned a lot about especially looking inside of myself and organising things inside my head, and not trying to control external situations [or] trying to find external sources of happiness.
“It's more about constantly watching your thoughts and gaining control, and especially your reaction to things, how you react to certain stimuli in your day.
“It's a completely different way of rewiring the way you see things, the way you live, the way you think.”
Consecutive world silver medals
Fratus’ lifestyle changes transformed his mindset and performance almost immediately.
Just one year after his sixth-place finish in Rio, and his mental health struggles, the Brazilian won two silver medals at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, Hungary, including the 4x100m relay alongside Olympic gold medallist Cesar Cielo.
In 2018, he overtook Cielo as the most frequent sub 22-second sprinter in history, before undergoing surgery to correct a partial tendon rupture in his shoulder.
Despite the major injury lay-off, he returned to the pool in 2019 to win a second consecutive 50m freestyle silver at the world championships in Gwangju, Korea, being pipped by Caeleb Dressel, and also went on to win the Pan American Games gold medal with a new event record.
“There was a big difference between the skinny kid in Rio and being five kilos heavier and stronger in Budapest.
“I also moved to a place with sunny weather and palm trees, just like it is here in South Florida, and it was something that really, really worked for us."
He was also quick to attribute much of his new-found success down to the more personalised coaching approach he was able to achieve through working full-time with his wife.
“I cannot begin to describe how big of a difference that made. My coach before her didn't used to really pay attention and watch me, but just gave me a workout to do as part of a large group. He wouldn’t really correct me and tell me to pay attention to certain aspects of my stroke.
“Swimming is an individual sport, so it's vital for you to have individual attention to you for your stroke, pace, averages, your mental, and emotional condition on that specific day, because these things change from day to day and you have to adapt training.
Encouraging his followers to show their personality
Today, Fratus is also something of a social media influencer in his homeland, where he has over 143K Instagram followers.
But rather than seeking any kind of online fame, the strong-minded athlete opts instead to use his platform to share his story and inspire his followers to let their own personalities out.
“I don't want anything to do with being a celebrity. If I could just influence maybe 20 people to change their lives for the better, to feel more confident about themselves, and to thrive despite any struggle they might be going through, I’d be happy.
“Swimmers are often portrayed as superhumans, and I do believe there are people like these around, like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, [but] we are all born equal. We all have two legs, a heart, and a brain. I consider that my only special ability is to dedicate a little bit more effort and time and belief to my craft, which is swimming."
“I want people to speak their minds, to be their own person, their own character, and not be afraid of anyone else. Be unapologetically you, discuss your vision of the world. Don't be afraid to talk politics, sports, and religion, as debate drives humanity.”
Going for a world record at the Tokyo Olympics
Fratus certainly practises what he preaches when it comes to straight talking.
Asked how fast he thinks he could go at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, his answer was quick:
“Faster than the world record!
“That's what I train for. That's what I live for. I mean, what the hell, right?
“Everybody is always saying ‘No it's not going to be me, I don't want to talk about it’, but I mean it’s the whole point of racing. Let's break this thing.”