AS Great Britain enjoyed their most successful-ever Olympics in the pool in Tokyo, Ben Proud watched on after enduring the worst 12 months of his career.
The sprinter had world, European and Commonwealth titles to his name, but was after that elusive Olympic hardware.
The problem was, the pandemic forced him to move back to the UK from his training base in Turkey a matter of months before the Games and the disruption clearly had an impact as he finished only fifth in the 50m freestyle.
He was 26 at the time, an age where some swimmers decide to call it a day, and Proud admits the thought crossed his mind. Instead, he found another solution to rediscover his fire.
He said: “Looking back at it now, there was far too much to deal with eight months before the Olympics. I held my breath and carried on going but it really had an impact afterwards. I’ve made a lot of changes this year.
“I’ve stepped up to be my own coach. I still have James Gibson as my coaching mentor but I’ve been writing my own sessions because if I’m going to carry on swimming, the motivation has to come from me and I lost that, with all the setbacks in the last couple of years.
“Before I did this, I was a 27-year-old who felt like I was still at school. I still felt like I was being taught by coaches and being told what to do. I didn’t have that control of my life and my swimming career, which is something I’ve always been very passionate about.
“To have lost that control really put me into a bad place in my swimming world. I had to make a change because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be swimming today.
“My character and the way I appreciate the sport and want to swim, it’s actually benefited me a lot. This is probably the best change I could have made.”
The change has clearly worked. In June he became world champion in the 50m freestyle for the first time, arguably the crowning achievement of his career to date.
And it is even more remarkable considering that his main objective this summer was not the Worlds in Budapest, but the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
After all, it was on this stage that he first made waves, winning two golds as a teenager in Glasgow back in 2014.
He added another in Gold Coast four years later, and will be the favourite to retain his 50m freestyle crown and reclaim the 50m butterfly title at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre.
After the elation of the worlds, peaking again so soon afterwards will not be easy, but Proud has been training with that very goal in mind.
He added: “We still have our sights set on Commonwealth Games, that has always been the plan – to race at Worlds and have a good experience but really hone in on the Commies because for me, this is something I’ve been wanting for a little while.
“Commonwealths, over the past four years, has been my big one. Even two years ago, I was saying I would go full on to the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and then decide after if I carry on swimming. So to have this summer going really well is quite promising.
“In 2014, I walked in there, 19 years old and almost felt that I was given these medals. I obviously worked hard for them but I didn’t understand what it took to win and was quite lucky. Four years on, I was swimming well, physically, got disqualified in one event and manage to retain the other title so it’s a bit of a tricky one. Ever since then, I’ve said to myself that four years on, I will be there and I will be fighting to contend for medals again. So I’m here, ready to contend.”
As much as swimming is an individual sport, the demanding nature of training at the elite level usually creates a level of camaraderie between members of the same squad.
Proud is the exception to the rule, not only by choosing to go it alone without a full-time coach, but also in terms of his training itself.
He explained: “I’m training by myself, which is exactly what I need. I’m a very internal swimmer, within my own head. By having that control, I can change things and do what I want. It’s worked well so far. Two more years until Paris, things might change, but I’m quite set being a lone wolf.
“That brought along the World Champs medal, if that’s all I can get this summer, it’s a hell of a change from 12 months ago when the Olympics didn’t go to plan at all. This summer has definitely brought a special treat.
“I’ve been talking about this for a long time, that in 2022 I would change swimming career to make it more sustainable. I didn’t realise that would happen before the Commonwealth Games but it happened naturally and this is probably the way I will see my career out, in this style. I see no reason to retire any time soon.”
With a world title already in the bag this summer and the potential for more Commonwealth success imminent, you can see why.