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JK Rowling was 31 when she introduced the world to Harry Potter, Henry Ford was 45 when the first Model T rolled off the line, Lucille Ball celebrated her 40th birthday shortly before I Love Lucy debuted, and Alys Thomas... writes Rachel Steinberg.
Actually, Alys Thomas would like to be left off these lists completely, thank you very much. The swimmer, bound for her first Olympics next month, just turned 30 in October—but people keep talking about her like she’s geriatric.
In fact, the butterfly specialist is just four years older than Team GB teammate Adam Peaty, and just two years separate her from the reigning world 200m butterfly champion, Hungary’s 28-year-old Boglárka Kapás.
Thomas isn’t even as old as American legend Michael Phelps was - 31 - when he picked up his 22nd and 23rd Olympic golds at Rio 2016. Yet, everyone keeps enquiring about the age thing.
“People ask, why do you think it’s taking you so long, why are you breaking through late… I don’t really know, is the answer!,” said the London native, looking out at the Wales National Pool in Swansea where she’s trained since the age of 18.
“I followed the flow of what my performance is, I just got better later on than perhaps the ‘norm’, whatever the norm is, than what perhaps the usual is in Britain, shall we say.
“I don’t necessarily feel like I’m old within my sport. “The women that I race [with] internationally, they’re my age in my event. So I feel like I am exactly where I’m meant to be.”
Thomas was on the edge of an Olympic debut in Rio, claiming the 2016 British title in the 100m and finishing runner-up in the 200m at the Glasgow nationals. Despite her domestic success, she wasn’t selected for the Brazil-bound squad.
It was heartbreaking news to receive at the time, but Thomas was determined to prove a growing chorus of doubters wrong.
Eyes steely with the memory, she said: “I remember a couple of instances where other coaches [than Stuart McNarry] or people in higher places have perhaps turned around to me or called me into an office and said ‘Hmm, is it time that Alys Thomas quits? Is it time that Alys Thomas retires?’
“And I was kind of taken aback by that – how dare someone else tell me that I’m done? I’m not done.”
She certainly wasn’t. In 2018, Thomas represented her dad’s native Wales at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, racing to gold in the 200m butterfly. In April, she touched the wall first at the British Tokyo 2020 trials in the same event, her time of 2:08.09 firmly placing her in contention for Team GB.
As a youngster, Thomas’ caterpillar phase was short. Her mum reckons the future Olympian did her first stroke by 18 months, though Thomas questions the veracity.
By age five, she was trying out for the Kingston Royals Swimming Club, where staff asked the young hopefuls to perform 25 of each stroke. Almost none them could do the butterfly—except one girl, who was hesitant to come out of her cocoon.
Thomas, who is working with Purplebricks to encourage the nation to get behind Team GB on their journey to Tokyo, recalled: “I was scared to say ‘I’ll do the fly one’ but another girl knew I could do fly, and she told me to do it.
“And I did it and everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a five-year-old doing fly!’”
Next month, she’ll take to the waters in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, a moment she is resisting relishing just yet. The Covid-complicated year has challenged even the swimmer’s elite set of lungs.
“This year, the last 18 months, everybody knows has been such a roller coaster. And it feels like I’ve been holding my breath, waiting, waiting, and waiting,” she said.
“[When I got the qualification time], that was a moment of relief.
“It was quite emotional. I remember speaking to Jazz Carlin in the interview afterwards and just being in tears basically. And I was like, ‘I’m OK, I’m just speaking to Jazz because I know Jazz’, and just being like, OK, OK, pull yourself together. This is alright. You’ve done it, relief, breathe.”
Still, a measured response wasn’t easy for the swimmer, who had watched athletes get coronated with olive leaves at the Athens 2004 Games and thought to herself, “Those are real life heroes. They literally look like Greek gods. That’s what I want to be.”
“All the excitement was coming, like, these childhood dreams that I’ve had, watching all the way back from Athens, Beijing, London… the next one is going to be me. This is going to be my chance. This is going to be my dream.”
Alys Thomas became an Olympian at the age of 30. And that suits her just fine.
Alys Thomas is working with Purplebricks to encourage the nation to get behind Team GB on their journey to Tokyo, with the same amazing home support as London 2012. Visit @PurplebricksUK or https://www.purplebricks.co.uk/team-gb