Torch Bearer for the Winter Olympics 2018

Sometimes opportunities come up and you cannot believe your own luck. As an Ambassador for Samsung, I was invited by them to attend the UK delegation heading to South Korea as part of the Olympic Torch Relay for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Our itinerary looked jam packed; fly to Tokyo, then on to Busan in the southern part of South Korea. It would take over 15 hours to get there and jump us forward by 9 hours ahead of GMT. We were due to stay for two days then return home. It seemed a mammoth journey, but it was absolutely worth every bit of jet lag and the hours of travel.

We arrived on Friday evening in Busan, a mass of Samsung volunteers and employees greeted us at the airport. The cameras were ready and we soon forgot our fatigue as we were whisked off to our hotel on the beautiful Pacific coastline of the East Sea. I was very excited to visit a very different part of the world and one which I am not familiar with, but upon arrival I was struck by the generosity, smiles and sense of humour from the staff we met there. The first day involved visiting a beautiful and peaceful Buddhist temple, the Beomeosa Temple, set in the idyllic autumnal, leafy hills that surround Busan. We were shown how to brew a traditional Korean green tea for guests. It takes a lot of care and attention that requires at least ten minutes' preparation compared to our standard and quick builders tea! We then swiftly moved from our lunch to the Gukje Market which gave us a fascinating insight into traditional Korean culture. We could observe how ladies cook kimchi and the variety of seafood on offer (including entire dried squid and other interesting delicacies). After a cable car trip spanning the stunning coastline of Busan, we headed to a traditional Korean BBQ dinner. During the whole day we wanted for nothing and were given amazing insight into Korean history and tradition by our energetic and witty guide, Genie. 

The following day, my fellow athletes (Ellie Simmonds and Amy Williams) and I got up at the crack of dawn to travel to a secret organising committee venue to get kitted out for our turn as torch bearers on the historic Olympic torch's journey to the heart of the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang next year. I must admit we all felt nervous and once we had done various kit swaps, we waited patiently to be called up for our turn to walk or run the 200m slot we were allocated. I chose to walk my 200m and tried to take in the magic of that moment. It is an indescribable feeling, having been to two Games and won medals, to be a tiny part of a journey that will lead athletes to the podium next year in PyeongChang. In fact, there were two Winter Games hopefuls with us; Rowan Cheshire and Jamie Nicholls. I talked to them about their preparations and feelings ahead of next year and it made me reminisce about the pure wonder and magic of competing for your country on such a global stage. Nothing can ever replace the feeling of competing, winning and then standing singing your national anthem with a Gold medal around your neck. That realisation that you did it and that every tough moment you went through, every failure, every set back was all part of the plan and process. I still get goose bumps even a year later and hope it never stops. I carried my Gold medal in my pocket as I walked with the torch, it has travelled around the world with me this past year and still accompanies my various trips!

All I can say to those competing at the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in PyeongChang in 2018 is please, please relax and enjoy every minute. You have done the work by now, you are ready, be confident and remember to take in every part of it. We will all be cheering and watching you from home! Especially to Rowan and Jamie - I am so glad I know some athletes and I will be screaming for you! 

Finally, I want to thank the team at M&C Saatchi and to Samsung for being a great sponsor. I am proud to support you as an Ambassador and so grateful for all the support and friendship that you have given me since filming "School of Rio" last year until now! Thanks to all the South Korean Samsung staff who were so attentive and to all my fellow torch bearers I met over the last few whirlwind days. 

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Retirement - the start of a new chapter

I knew after Rio that I could be ready to step away from competitive sport, but I needed a few months to think things over and to use some time to come to a decision. I want to leave at the top – undefeated European Champion over 6 years and Paralympic champion in the 50m Butterfly at Rio 2016. From fourth in London, to Gold in Rio, it was a journey of learning, challenges and ultimately immense happiness. Being awarded an MBE recently in the New Year’s honours was a final perfect way to round off 8 years at the top. I leave the sport with 30 international medals and I am proud of my swimming career. It is time for me to step away and to allow other areas of my life to develop as I am getting involved more and more with external projects. I always knew that the day would come when I would want to move on and to return to developing myself into a future leader and to use the other professional skills that I have developed alongside competing as an elite athlete. I feel honoured to have represented my country, to have made it to the top of the podium many times and lucky to have raced against the best. I wish them and the rest of the Paralympic movement huge amounts of luck and success in the future, I really believe strongly in the Paralympics and everything it represents and I hope to remain involved in sport for years to come.
I want to thank the people I have met, the coaches and staff that I have worked with and the incredible people I have raced against over the years. I will miss the incredible moments with my lovely team mates, but I will never forget the amazing memories that we shared. I will never stop swimming; I love it too much, but for now, my racing days are over. Thank you to my family and friends who have supported me and to Steve Bratt, Ron Philpot and Terry Smith at the start of my career and Tony Beckley at the end for all their help. And to Keith Morgan, who has trained me in the gym since day one. 

“What appears to be the end, may really be a new beginning”

Receiving my MBE at Buckingham Palace

I won't forget Friday 17th February any time soon... I got ready in the morning in my flat and put on my outfit and most importantly, my hat, and headed to the Mall with my Mother as I prepared to receive my MBE for services to Para Swimming at Buckingham Palace. I was very excited but nervous when I arrived. I always find it strange when you are allowed to walk through the Gates and the crowds are watching you and taking photos! It is a surreal experience.

It was lovely to see some of the Hockey ladies there too; Kate and Helen Richardson Walsh, as well as some of my Para swimming team mates again. We nervously were ushered into a separate room upstairs and talked through the protocol along with the other guests. Trying to remember what you have to do is possibly the hardest part, along with how to address the Royal family! The Prince of Wales was awarding the honours today which made it extremely special for all the attendees. As I waited for my surname to walk out, I looked around the Ball Room (I have never been upstairs in the Palace before although I have been a few times now!) and took in the beautiful music played by the Orchestra as I came out (it was Coldplay "When I ruled the World" I think it is called!). It was a magical moment, over so quickly but a wonderful feeling to have recognition from my years of competing and working hard from the bottom to the very top.

The Prince of Wales spoke briefly to me about my medal haul and how long I have been swimming for and in a brief moment it was over, just like my win in Rio. There are some wonderful moments in life and they are so fleeting, but you value them more because of that. I was lucky to be there today and to share it with some of the people that have been a part of my journey, because I didn't do it alone. So I guess I want to say thank you. To everyone who helped me to get there and along the way. Here's to the next Chapter!

New Year, new me...!

So 2016 brought me a huge amount of joy and happy memories, interspersed with hardship and challenges... Life is never a smooth path but I was lucky enough to reach a beautiful end to a wonderful year of competition. I won my Gold at Rio 2016 after many years of working and trying, but not quite getting there. I appreciate that not everyone gets there as well and that is what makes me most grateful. As I move forward I have been drawing on support from those around me and guidance.. I have taken up 10 minutes of daily mindfulness and gentle breathing meditation. It is amazing how calming it is. I would recommend it to anyone who is at a crossroads in their life, at the start of something new or even facing a challenge. Centering yourself and looking after and cherishing "you" is essential. None of us do this enough in our busy lives....