Alys Thomas - To me age is not a thing. I’m still good enough to be an Olympian and I am one.
- Nofio, Plymio, Nofio Artistig, Polo Dŵr, Addysg
- National, Performance
The proverb that good things come to those who wait could have been written for Alys Thomas.
On Tuesday, at the age of 30 – once considered veteran territory in the world of top class swimming – the Swansea-based swimmer will make her Olympic debut.
When she steps into the arena in Tokyo, a lot of memories will float through the mind of the current Commonwealth Games 200m butterfly champion.
Others have doubted her, but she rarely doubted herself.
“It gets on my nerves a little bit – this focus on age in swimming - but I always look at it from the point of view that I’m the right age for the event if I’m performing well,” says Thomas.
“I think sports science advances in the last few years have helped older swimmers compete for longer, but ultimately my swimming is the reason I’m still going. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would have stopped.
“I have always wanted to be an Olympian and believed I would be one day, so why would I stop if hadn’t tried to achieve that?
“There’s no age cut-off at an Olympics so why should age be a reason to stop?
“To me age is not a thing. I’m still good enough to be an Olympian and I am one.
“Historically, swimmers have peaked at younger ages. Perhaps that’s the difference to other sports. But across the board the ages of swimmers are getting older.
“I just wish it wasn’t a thing and that it is seen as normal to swim at any age because you can, and I think you should, follow your own path and then when you’re ready, you’re ready.”
Swimming was always an early interest for Thomas, even if it meant she was something of a loner at school in Hampton.
By the time other girls were just getting out of bed, Thomas had already done an early morning session at a local pool as the swimming bug had bitten deep.
“At school, I always found it difficult to get on with people as they didn’t understand me much.
“I used to turn up with wet hair as I used to swim in the mornings and they used to say, ‘Why haven’t you dried your hair?’ I just don’t think they understood swimming.
“I just had more in common with my friends at swimming so I was never fussed about having friends at school.
“Swimming is something I’ve always loved, been good at, and felt at ease with.
“My mum says I swam a stoke at the age of 18 months. I’ve always felt at home in the water, there’s no pressure or judgement on me as a person.
“My mum put me into lessons and after that I joined my first club near Surrey at the age of five. I had to swim a length of fly aged five to be able to join the team.”
Thomas is the most experienced of the super six Welsh swimmers who are flying the flag for Swim Wales in Tokyo.
It’s a record number for Wales at one Games and underlines the quality of the coaching and the smooth functioning of the pathway from talent identification to international recognition.
Despite growing up in England, Thomas has always had strong links to Wales through her father’s side of the family.
At the age of 18, Thomas relocated to Swansea for university but it was the swimming set up that was the major factor in her decision.
“My dad is Welsh and my grandparents used to live in the Mumbles,” she adds.
“I came down to Swansea every April for the Welsh Nationals so I knew of the pool and set up.
“The Swim Wales performance director at the time used to say to me we’ve got a great set up here, when you’rd ready come and move down.
“They were then asking me about university, saying we’ve got one across the road and have good links with them.
“I think all this just made my decision really easy about what to do after school.
“When I was looking universities, I wasn’t really thinking about further education, it was more about what’s going to best for my swimming.”
In 2014 she missed out on a Commonwealth Games medal by 0.18 seconds. Her first national title was not until 2016. Then 2018 was her breakthrough year.
She won Commonwealth gold for Wales in the women's 200m butterfly in a new personal best, Games record and one of the fastest times anywhere in the world that season. She followed that up with two European Championship medals and is now finally set to make her Olympic debut.
“It gave me lots of confidence at the Gold Coast and definitely showed me that I would be now ready for an Olympics.
“I took lots of belief from it such as knowing I am a world class swimmer that can produce world class times against world class athletes.”
Thomas is now fully focused on being at her best in Tokyo and she is looking to use her experience to her advantage.
“I’m very good at getting into the competition zone. When I go away go to swim, I can take myself to a place where I can control my emotions well.
“I will do what I usually do and just go through my normal processes like I would before any other race.
“I don’t think too far ahead and then before I know it I’ll be there on the block.
“I always try to interpret nerves as excitement that always makes me feel better.”
She also has some valuable advice for the future stars of the sport.
“Above everything else just make sure you’re enjoying it. If you’re having fun then you will do absolutely fine.
“And who cares what anyone else thinks if you are turning up at school with wet hair!”