Ben Proud: The fastest swimmer in the world you probably have not heard of

Ben Proud: The fastest swimmer in the world you probably have not heard of

Ben Proud became the first person ever to win World, European and Commonwealth swimming titles in the same year in 2022 – Getty Images/Mine Kasapoglu

He’s the fastest swimmer in the world but, having not veered onto Twitter since giving thanks for being named the Devon & Cornwall Sports Personality of the Year for 2018, Ben Proud is just about the last person you will find shouting about it.

Some of his team-mates evidently feel rather differently, however, and so this was the reaction of Duncan Scott – winner of four Olympic medals in Tokyo – to Proud’s omission from last year’s main BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist.

“Sorry @‌BenProud,” wrote Scott. “Maybe if you had made the cut at the Open, won a Grand Slam and qualified for the Champions League, as well as be the current World, Commonwealth and European Champ, you’d have given yourself a chance … madness. What more’s the guy got to do?!?!”

It had been Proud’s annus mirabilis – a hat-trick of golds in the 50m freestyle – but the ripples that went surging through world swimming would remain largely contained.

Not that Proud much cares. He will defend his 50m world title in Japan on Saturday and, after almost retiring last spring, now judges himself on metrics far beyond his place on the podium, let alone any wider acclaim.

We speak over Zoom shortly before he arrived in Fukuoka and, as he holds up his iPad to share the view from his room at the Gloria Sports Arena near Antalya in Turkey, you begin to understand how he might have rekindled his love for this most gruelling sport.

“Just take a look,” he said, panning the screen across a spectacular sun-drenched complex that includes a range of Olympic-sized indoor and outdoor pools as well as gyms, restaurants and an athletics stadium. It is certainly a far-cry from a rainy dark early winter morning in Plymouth, where he spent much of his formative years, or Bath, where he prepared for the Tokyo Olympics.

“It’s my happy place,” says Proud. “The weather is amazing, travel is not a problem, food is not a problem, the facilities are world class. Swimming outdoors makes a big difference. It’s all about motivation and pushing yourself.

“I have to make sure it’s sustainable. For longevity, I needed somewhere I could be happy. I know some people can do it but to go into a cold, dark winter, jump in the water at 6am, doesn’t help with the situation. You see professional hubs in other sports where everything is taken care of – like football – but you don’t really get that in swimming or track and field.

“When I’m here you feel like you are in a world class professional environment all day every day. I have a great routine and look forward to jumping in the water. It makes it less of a chore and more a lifestyle choice.”

Aged 28, Proud suspects that he has only two years left of a career that has already included 11 World, European and Commonwealth titles. The former world breaststroke champion James Gibson remains an influential life mentor, but he is essentially also now self-coached and, with Sundays off, a typical day comprises two pool sessions intersected by two hours in the gym.

Ben Proud: The fastest swimmer in the world you probably have not heard of

Ben Proud has won 11 World, European and Commonwealth titles in his career – PA/Martin Rickett

“More and more, the situation is a coach telling a swimmer what to do,” says Proud. “I was fed up with that. I said, ‘If I’m going to keep swimming, the drive and motivation has to come from me’. It meant I was purely doing things that I wanted to do, not because of any external pressures.”

Proud’s other big change after finishing fifth at the Tokyo Games – and feeling that he had somehow let people down – was in how he viewed his sport and the importance of results. “Because of my last Olympic experience I was very close to stepping away from the water,” he says. “I still don’t have that Olympic drive and ambition but I have a love for swimming and my event. I had to go through a big shift. Looking at my preparation beforehand, it was very toxic, very much suffocating myself to try and bring out these performances. I was a high-stress athlete. It got to the stage where it was too much.

“That’s why last year was really beautiful. I went from March-time talking about retirement with all the British Swimming staff to five months later being champion in all the three events. I came out of a dark place.”

As Proud then reflects on the origins of that “high-stress” outlook, it is clear that certain formative experiences were hugely impactful. He was born in London, but the family then moved to Malaysia before returning to Devon when he was 16. “I think you’ll probably find in a lot of athletes, the really high achievers, the ones who strive to be a perfectionist, they tend to have some traumatic experience somewhere in their life that makes them want to escape,” he says. “It’s a form of escapism. For me it was very much, ‘swimming is my escape’. It was what I needed to do to move on and get past certain things. It’s to do with my personality as well. It was all about stress and anxiety. I wouldn’t change a thing about it – it made me do many things I have done but it pushed a little bit too far.”

Proud does not go into specific detail about what that traumatic experience might be, but he does refers to the “relationship you have with certain stories of your life” and says that, “growing up as a teenager…I found that swimming was a way to move on past the stage where I wasn’t very comfortable”.

He stresses that it is “a good story” overall, and that he feels gratitude for having found swimming, and especially now an outlook that will allow him to approach the Paris Olympics as an opportunity rather than some sort of threat.

“There’s no longer that attachment to swimming, that desire ‘I have to be a swimmer’,” he says. “It’s more ‘embrace it and see where it ends’. I have the opportunity to be a swimmer, and do something that money can’t buy.”

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