Buxton swimmer Abbie Wood has certainly come a long way since a disappointing performance at the 2017 World Championships almost derailed her career completely at the age of just 18.

Fast forward four years, Wood has bounced back from the biggest disappointment of her career to recently qualify for the Team GB swimming squad for the upcoming Tokyo Games following a significant upturn in form since the beginning of 2020. The potential was always there, as Abbie reflects on how she first got involved with the sport and how an excellent junior career raised expectations for the beginning of her senior career which unfortunately met a big stumbling block within a short space of time:

“I started at Buxton Swimming Club when I was about eight or nine. I got involved because my sister used to swim as well. I then got asked to go into Derbyshire’s elite swim squad. I had quite a successful junior career. I won the European junior title a handful of times and picked up other medals. I got my first senior call-up for the Swimming World Championships in 2017 and that didn’t go amazing but I still managed to make England’s swimming squad for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018 where I made a few finals and then after that, there was a bit of a gap in my career where not much was going on. But in the past six months or so, my career seems to have really taken off and I recently qualified for my first Olympic Games which is really exciting.”

“I’ve always been a medley swimmer. When I was younger, I did breaststroke quite a bit and it’s only recently I’ve started going back to that. For the Tokyo Games, I’ll be competing in the 200m breaststroke and 200m medley and then maybe some freestyle relays because I’ve started to go into the freestyle scene recently too. So, there’s a nice handful of events that I’m competing in which is quite nice, as it takes the pressure off my shoulders compared to if I was just competing in one event.”

What makes Wood’s upturn in form and the realisation of her potential even more impressive is the fact that this has come over a period of time that the Covid-19 pandemic paused the globe and conventional training was simply non-existent for a very long time for elite athletes to deal with. I asked Abbie how difficult it was to keep her momentum going and stay focused on trying to qualify for her first ever Olympic Games:

“For a few other sports, I guess you can kind of replicate the training you needed to do, so you could still do it at your own home. But, for swimming, you couldn’t do that. All the pools were shut and a lot of swimmers were struggling. A few of my friends within swimming have retired because it’s just been a totally different year to what everyone is used to. Everyone had to adapt with their training. Being away from the pool for so long, it definitely took us all a while to properly get back into it. On the other hand, it did make a lot of people realise just how much they enjoy being a swimmer. For me, I definitely took it for granted. Now I realise what a great opportunity I’ve got. You realise how lucky you are and how privileged a position you’re in. So, it was bittersweet for a lot of people. It was a bit surprising just how many good performances came out of the Olympics swimming trials for British swimming, as it was just unheard of to take more than a month’s break out of the pool. To have like, four to five months off, that’s just unheard of in training, so it was really hard to know what to expect once everyone was back competing.”

I asked Abbie how she found out that she’d definitely secured a place at the Tokyo Games following her performance at the British Olympics Trials where she met the strict and tough qualifying times set:

“In swimming, you have Olympics trials which was held in April. But even then, if you finish in the top two in your event and meet the qualifying time set, you’re not guaranteed a spot at that moment. You have to wait for an email to come through into your inbox saying that you’ve qualified for the Olympic Games. So it was about three or four days after the Olympic swimming trials that I received the email saying that I was officially in the Team GB squad. A little later on, I received a formal letter from the BOA confirming my place at the Games. Even before that arrived though, you kind of knew that if you met the qualifying standard time set at the Olympic trials, then you would be pretty sure you’ve made the Olympics squad. So straight after I finished in the top two in my event at the trials, there was a lot of celebrating. So some of the swimmers kind of knew at that point already whether they were going to the Games or not, but obviously it’s not set in stone until you’ve received that email.”

In our interview, Abbie also speaks about the strength of Team GB’s swimming team going into the Tokyo Games and it sounds like Team GB are expecting (not just hoping) to build on their successful Games five years ago in Rio de Janeiro. With this easily being the most unique Olympic Games in modern times and the chances of some unexpected and eyebrow-raising results pretty high, it will be fascinating to see just how successful Team GB’s swimming squad could be this summer:

“It’s a very strong team going into the Olympic Games. British Swimming make up their own qualifying times to see who gets on the team because they only want to take people who have a shot of winning a medal. They don’t take people for the sake of it. The qualifying times they ask you to meet are that times of what would have finished you in fourth position for each swimming event at the previous Olympics. So these are really hard times to get. So naturally, when you’ve got around 24 people who have met these qualifying times at the trials then it does automatically make Team GB’s swimming squad very strong going into these Games. Rio was a really successful games for Team GB in the swimming pool and the aim for the team is to build on that success. But yeah, the pressure was definitely on at those trials to get those times on the day, but that does kind of bring you a practice run for the Olympics because you know you have to deliver on that day. There’s no excuses if you don’t get the right time, because there’s no excuses once you’re at the Olympics. I think the cut-throat mentality helps you out once you’re at the Games but it can cause a bit of upset for the swimmers who don’t perform at the trials, but I suppose that’s just what sport is.”

Abbie also goes into some detail about the circumstances in 2017 that genuinely left her questioning where exactly her career was going. After an admittedly poor and very underwhelming performance in Budapest for the Swimming World Championships, Wood was desperate to find out why her first major event in her senior career had not gone the same way as so many events in her junior career. Some much-needed perspective from her coach reassured her to keep going and that her potential could still be fulfilled:

“I almost didn’t bounce back, to be honest. I had a meeting with my coach as soon as I got back to England after those World Championships, because I was so devastated and so embarrassed by what happened. My coach told me in the meeting that I was still young, that this sort of stuff can happen. He gave me a load of examples of swimmers who had experienced very disappointing events early in their career but have gone on to be successful now. You almost sort of need this to happen in a way, to show you that it’s not going to be easy to get to where you want to be. I went straight into those World Championships straight off the back of a successful junior career, thinking that I could just keep the ball rolling into the senior scene, but it just doesn’t go that way. You’re more of a smaller fish in a bigger pond at that point now. You’re starting to go up against very experienced athletes and it’s taken me around four years to gain the experience to start performing under the pressure that I was not able to back when I was 18.”

Since December 2019, Wood has really started to fulfil that potential shown as a junior and has put the disappointment of the 2017 World Championships behind her. In December 2019, Wood won three individual titles in the National Winter Championships. With her form becoming stronger and stronger and with the sport having to face such a low profile for a while due to lockdown restrictions, Wood has been touted as some as being ‘swimming’s best-kept secret.’ I asked Abbie what it felt like to have that tag and whether that put any pressure on herself going into the Tokyo Games:

“It was quite an interesting title for me to see. I suppose that, because stuff has happened so quickly for me in the past six months, it has all sort of come a bit from nowhere. At the same time, I had been on the scene for a while now, but I just wasn’t doing much. I have surprised myself by what I’ve managed in the past year. I wasn’t getting many benchmarks for me to try and meet because of the situation with the lockdowns and not being to actually compete in races. So it took quite a while to see if the training that I had been managing to do was actually going to pay off, but it does seem to have all come together. I’m not sure if I like the tag, because I’m not sure if I like that pressure on me! I guess it’s a nice way of putting it.”

Abbie also talks about her influences that got her interested in the sport and who has motivated her to get to the stage she now finds herself at:

“I think, like for most swimmers, Michael Phelps was definitely an inspiration. It was so amazing to watch him win the eight golds in 2008. In 2012, it was all about the Brits, so I had my eye on people like Mo Farah and Jess Ennis. I really enjoyed watching those athletics events. I think what inspired me the most though was in 2016, when I’d just joined the National Centre in Loughborough. A few of the swimmers there were going to the Rio Games and I was setting my alarm for the middle of the night in order to watch my team-mates and that kind of kick-started my mentality: as in, if they’re doing this and they train at the same place as me, then why can’t I do it in a few years time? Seeing the success of my own team-mates has been the biggest inspiration personally for my own career.”

Finally, I asked Abbie what her expectations are in terms of performance for the upcoming Olympics and what, in her eyes, would a good debut Olympics look like?

“I don’t want to set too many goals or put too much out there. I just want to be in the mix for the racing rather than just being a qualifier for the Games. That’s my real aim. I want to make finals and just see where I go from there. I feel like if the Games hadn’t have been pushed back a year, I would have only just scraped onto Team GB’s Olympics squad and would have been there as just a qualifier. But now, I feel like I’m setting times that will put me right in the mix if I want to be a competitor out there. That’s my main aim really.”

With the Tokyo Games looking to be such an open affair, there really is no limit as to what Abbie Wood can achieve in just over two months time. The Buxton-born swimmer, who also works with Derbyshire Institute of Sport, is definitely someone to keep an eye on for making back page headlines come July.

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