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“I felt lost – I’d had this one goal to win the Olympics”: Adrian Moorhouse on swimming as escapism, Olympic gold and the mental strain on today’s athletes

“Yes, I won the Olympics but at some point, I couldn’t swim; like any other kid, I had to learn how,” Adrian Moorhouse reflects with a considered poignancy as we discuss the development of a champion athlete.

It is a world that Moorhouse, a gold medallist in the 100m breaststroke at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, can arguably tackle with greater insight now than when he fulfilled his lifelong goal in South Korea.

The Bradford-born athlete called on every last sinew to overhaul Dmitry Volkov and Karoly Guttler in claiming a memorable victory. He was the Olympic champion by one hundredth of a second, the closest finish of the 1988 Games. But for the realisation of a dream, the margin needed not be any wider.

Three decades on, Moorhouse is the co-founder and managing director of Lane4, a leading consultancy firm, specialising in human performance. He was named among Britain’s 30 most influential HR thinkers in 2010 and 2011.

And as he explains his route into swimming, comprehending the progression of Moorhouse’s post-pool career is as straightforward as it is fascinating.

“For me, swimming was a bit of a saving grace,” he admits.

“When I was in my early teens at school, I had quite a hard time. I was bullied quite heavily during those two or three years and swimming was a release from that. The pool was a place where I could go – it’s quite an isolated sport so I was able to go away and get my head down and use it as an escape.

“But also, it gave me some level of control. It’s one of those sports where it doesn’t matter if your face fits or not. If you win a race, you get picked for the next one, so you’re in control.”

And his immediate success would mean that he remained ‘in control’; there was National Championship gold as a 15-year-old, and after Duncan Goodhew’s retirement in 1980 following his own gold medal-winning display in Moscow, Moorhouse would become Britain’s number one male – aged just 16.

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It led, he explains, to something of a sporting epiphany. “My reason for swimming and my definition of what swimming meant to me did really change when I was 15 because I’d gone from doing this passionate thing for myself which I did for my own self-esteem to then achieving things based on that drive.

“I remember having this conversation with my coach, and he said: ‘The world’s your oyster really. Now is your time really. You’ve got the position’.

“At the same time, I’m entering A-Level time and at school I’ve got this real challenging conundrum of being this professional swimmer earning no money at that point but on the verge of the Olympics.

“I was very much a binary choice kind of person. It was very much a case of throwing myself headfirst into swimming and not doing the A-Level thing. Doing both was not going to work for me, although I did sit and fail them all!”

However, by the time Moorhouse had taken his exams, he was a Commonwealth champion, having smashed the British record in the process.

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He was, for all intents and purposes, a winning machine. On the back of David Wilkie’s breaststroke gold in 1976, Goodhew had won in 1980, while Neil Cochran had claimed bronze in the individual medley in Los Angeles in 1984. Success was in the water for British swimming.

Yet for Moorhouse, the Los Angeles Games would be a watershed moment. He had been tipped for gold but missed out on a medal.

“I came fourth and I lost,” he recalls. There is no bitterness in his voice but even now, there is an unerring sense that a level of frustration remains. For Moorhouse, there was a vision, an end goal, an absolute objective.

“The Olympics had been a dream since I’d been 12,” he says. “I knew about it, I’d watched it on TV and I wanted to be it. Having lost when I was 20, that was a turning point.

“They always say that you learn most from your failures.”

And four years later in Seoul, he would reach his zenith; his life’s work had been accomplished. Moorhouse was just 24.

I ask him if there was an emptiness after winning that gold medal that had – until then – proven an imperceptible necessity. Athletes speak regularly of their sense of loss post-retirement, that previously unfathomable disappearance of a regimented routine. Many have applied the same struggle for purpose to the void felt by members of the armed forces after their discharge.

“You’re dead right,” he confesses.

“I felt lost. I’d had this one goal from the outset to win the Olympics. I felt lost for quite a while and probably as low as I’d felt when I had lost the Olympics four years previously.

“It took me a while actually to realise that I didn’t want to quit then. I was only 24 but it coincided with me having a spell in the Far East and becoming a bit more philosophical and esoteric about my life. I realised that what was not important was the outcome and the objective – but more the purpose.”

By 1988, he had won Olympic, Commonwealth and European gold. Quite the trio. But it was also a trio that left him devoid of tangible ambition.

Swimming could no longer be just about the winning. Medals on their own could no longer satisfy the mind. The ‘purpose’ he speaks of meant attaching a significance to competing beyond the concrete superficiality of the medal itself.

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“I’d won most of the things already,” he explains. “It became a case of what was my purpose in life? If I carry on in swimming, what do I want to be? It became meaningful to me and I actually wrote it down – I wanted to be regarded and respected as one of the best swimmers in the world. That was my purpose.

“So then, when you’ve got a purpose then there are many ways of measuring that.

“Of course, I could go to the next Commonwealth Games and try and retain them. If I manage that and do win it again in 1990 then that’s the third time I’ve won it in a row. There are only two swimmers who’ve ever done that so then that fits the purpose of being regarded as one of the best in the world.

“On top of that, I was invited to lead a breaststroke coaching session in Australia by top coaches because I’m regarded and respected for my capability. I was invited to run this week-long course. I actually think that kept me more motivated and made it more meaningful.”

The added dimension that Moorhouse discusses – twinning the sportsperson’s desire to win with a clarity of thought and an ambition beyond the arbitrary notion of success or failure – is one that is dominating British sport’s current landscape. The question of athlete welfare has, for the first time, been placed alongside the importance of medal-winning.

Having implemented it into his own regime post-Seoul after the emotional low that followed his golden high, it is a debate on which – as an HR expert – Moorhouse is better placed than most to comment.

“I think having a gold medal or a driven purpose to be the best in the world – as a nation or as a club or as a person – is a good thing,” he says.

“The question is how multi-dimensional is it? I think that what’s going on at the moment is that a happy and healthy human being will lead to winning. And we’ve forgotten that bit.

“In a swimming race, it’s not just about swimming fast and training hard and being aerobically and anaerobically fit and being powerful and strong and being nutritionally on your game or knowing exactly how to fuel your body. There’s a lot of input that goes into winning a race. And one of the inputs is a healthy and mentally safe and sound athlete.

“What’s going on, I think, is that people are forgetting the fundamental input to the output of performance. As I say, I’m a massive fan of the end goal. I don’t want us to go down the route of winning not being important or where we are in the medal-table not being important. I think it is important and I wholeheartedly endorse that.

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For Moorhouse however, it is the route being taken to dominating the medal-table that risks toying with the wellbeing of the athletes.

“People have gone a little bit single-dimensional,” he tells me. “People have gone back to what feels like the old days. In the 1970s and ‘80s, they used to flog you up and down the swimming pool. You’d do your technical input and then you’d win races. And the fitter people did that.”

As Moorhouse expands on one of sport’s most important discussions, he does so profoundly. There is no guesswork or preaching in what he says. He relies on his own experiences of elite sport. After the setback of the Los Angeles Games, he won gold four years later. Despite the low that followed the Seoul gold, he would go on to break the world record in 1990. The key to his enduring success, he says, was his state of mind.

“When I competed in the 1990s, you are looking at rest and relaxation and recuperation,” he continues. “The thing that bothered me in recent years about swimming is that it seems to have become a twelve-month and all-year-round sport.

“It’s now as if you finish the Olympics or you finish the World Championships and then you’re back on the treadmill and back in the water on Monday and you can’t possibly have a break. The year before I broke my world record I had two months off. I won the European Championships, took two months off. I didn’t go off the rails completely, but I was mentally refreshed. I came back hungry.

“That’s part of the input of me being a world record holder. I think what’s gone on is that the obsession has become a bit more unhealthy and people have forgotten the multi-dimensional nature of a healthy and safe athlete, as well as a physically sound and strong athlete.”

Moorhouse highlights a lack of what he describes as ‘contracting’ between athlete and coach in causing the disconnect that has blurred the line of what is acceptable. Para-swimming coach Rob Greenwood was accused last year of creating a ‘climate of fear’ within the training programme.

“I’ve had lots of swimming coaches and, in today’s lens, I probably had two ‘bullying’ coaches,” he confesses. “I think there’s something about how complicit the athlete is in some degrees. I want to win the Olympic gold medal and unless I give that person feedback that what he’s doing is not acceptable, I am buying into the dynamic between me and my coach.

“What’s interesting in the dynamic in bullying in all the sports is that the athletes have to feel safe. That’s the main thing. And then you’re into the relationship between coach and athlete.

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“You’re into this place where you give them feedback and say: ‘that is not acceptable to me. I need this to be a more adult-adult relationship. I don’t mind you driving me hard and pushing me to where you think I can go but you have to put your arm around me and hold me, metaphorically. You have to give me emotional safety as well as some form of drive. And that’s the contract’.”

Of course, Moorhouse presents this view well aware that it is based on a utopia and that in many cases, contracting simply is not possible.

“I don’t think there’s enough contracting going on,” he says. “Now, I speak as an adult saying that and there are some very vulnerable people in my sport – children under the age of 18 – and there may be some people incapable of creating that contract and that is for the governing bodies, I think, to create that form of psychological safety and contract between coaches and athletes.

“I can do that now as a 50-year-old – and actually I did that as a 23-year-old with my coaches at the time when I was mature enough to get hold of it.”

Ultimately, however, Moorhouse is an Olympic champion – a serial winner. After his 1988 triumph, Great Britain would have to wait 20 years for more Olympic joy. It was Becky Adlington in Beijing who would win the next medal in the pool.

Thus, while Moorhouse’s every thought is laden with the wisdom picked up during his time working in human performance, he is wary of criticising a focus on medal-winning.

“I don’t think the goal of winning medals is wrong,” he emphasises. “And I’m really cautious when I read stuff about people saying we’ve gone too far because we want to win too much – because that is okay. You either win or lose.

“I do not want to train – and I would not have trained for twenty years – if I didn’t care if I lost every race.”



Featured photograph: British Swimming / SWPix

Nick Friend
Seeing off 500 entries along the way, Nick was the runner-up in the David Welch Student Sportswriter Competition for 2018, culminating in a night a the SJA Awards dinner alongside the very best in the industry. He has spent most of his twenty-three years involved in sport in one way or another. He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, having spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. The 23-year-old gained much of his experience in journalism as sport editor of the University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. During his two years in the role, he sourced and ran a host of high-profile exclusive interviews, three of which rank among the most-read pieces in the website’s history. He won the university’s Hunter Davies Prize for Journalism in 2015. Since leaving Durham, he has written for the iPaper, while contributing weekly to Sport500 – a website focused on creating concise sport opinion content. When not writing, Nick can often be heard bemoaning the fortunes of Queens Park Rangers. Beyond the Rs, he is an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, while in more delusional times, had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. He counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessary knowledge of all three.
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