“It was like: Don’t panic, Sophie. Push. Push.”
“The girl in the next lane was head to head with me, and my legs and arms were like lead. My body felt as if it would cease up any second.”
“All I could think was: Push. Push. Push!”
I’m meeting with 17-year-old Team GB swimming talent Sophie Hobbah from Drighlington near Leeds to talk about her incredible journey so far and being finally on route to fulfil her ultimate dream: Olympic Gold.
“I did win that race and a gold medal at the National Championships in Sheffield this summer. And I needed this. I had so much to prove at that moment.”
Sophie has won two gold, two silver and three bronze national championship medals already since the age of 13. There have been some major setbacks in recent years. But she is back on form now. Currently in fourth place of the fastest females for 200 metres backstroke in Great Britain, she is likely to be among the top 20 European female swimmers in that category.
“I was a water baby right from the start”
“I started competitive swimming when I was nine years old. My mum has always loved water and dreamt that her children should be swimmers. I was even born in a pool. So, I was a water baby right from the start.”
Was it just her mum’s influence that got her into competitive swimming?
“Well, both my parents did influence me at first. They put me into swimming lessons early. And when the point came where I had to decide whether I was going to put more time into swimming, they helped me. When you’re nine years old, you can’t really decide on your own. But I had a lot of success with my swimming already, and I enjoyed it. So, I was happy to do more of it. So, it wasn’t just my mum and dad who influenced me.”
“At 13 I had my international debut for Team GB”
When did she know that it was getting serious and what has been her driving force ever since?
“After being in competitive swimming for about a year, I already moved up to the Leeds National Squad when I was 10. And, I had my international debut for Team GB at 13. That was serious and an enormous motivation boost.”
“I’m 17 now, and my successes are still my main drivers. I just want more and more of them. The training is ridiculously hard. But when you’re in training, you are like super motivated to be the best you can be. That’s a constant thought at the back of your mind. It’s this determination that keeps me going.”
“Swim – School – Swim – Sleep – Repeat”
What does a typical week in her life look like?
“On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I get up at 4 am. I have my breakfast, and I train from 5 am to 7 am. We average about 7000 metres per session. Then I go home, get changed and have a full day at school till 4 pm. I get back to training from 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm. After that, I’ll be at the gym for one hour until 7.45 pm. I don’t actually get home till about 8.15 pm. I have my dinner, try and fit in some schoolwork and then go to bed. I’m always so tired from the day that I fall asleep straight away. It’s like swim – school – swim – sleep – repeat.”
“I train every night, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays you could say I have a ‘lie-in’. I get up at 7.30 am.“
“On Saturday mornings I train for two hours from 5.30 am and then go to the gym until 9 am. That’s great because there’s still plenty of time to have a weekend, to recover a bit and to get as much schoolwork in as I can. Yeah, it’s a busy week.“
“I’ve got to think about the future”
She must feel exhausted sometimes.
“Oh, yes. Especially now, as I’ve got A-levels. It’s also worse when it’s winter mornings, and it’s dark and cold at 4 am. And when training is harder than normal. There are moments when it’s like ‘Oh my god. I’m so drained from it all.’”
“But I can talk to my parents about that, and they keep me going. My mum runs marathons, and my dad does competitions in cycling. They both train every day. My dad always says, ‘Sophie, I know how hard it is. I’ve been there. Think about what you want out of it.’”
“Which is true. I’ve got to think about the future. In 18 months’ time, it’s Olympic trials, and that’s not that long to prep. It’s my long-term goals rather than the short-term ones that keep me going at times like this. And, yeah, fingers crossed, I’ll be in Tokyo in 2020.”
“I’d rather be an Olympic gold medal winner than a drunken teenager”
And what about the sacrifices she’s got to make? That must be hard to take as a teenager.
“My social life is on a bit of a plateau, but that’s being an athlete, really. I do have some weekends where I ask a friend to go to Leeds for lunch or shopping. And I also love spending time with my mum. We have such a good friendship. There have been lots of times when I’ve missed out on parties and things because I’ve had training on. But I accept it. When I can go out, it makes it more special.“
“Anyway, I’d rather be an Olympic gold medal winner than a drunken teenager. The opportunities I get at my age are amazing. Like, in December I’m going to Canada for an international meet. Things like this are once in a lifetime opportunities that not many teenagers would get. So, yeah, I’m really grateful.”
“I had an internal tear in my hip. For a 15-year-old that’s not what you want to hear”
She’s had some major setbacks in the past three years. That must have been difficult?
“Yes. At the beginning of 2015, just after I had made it into Team GB, I was diagnosed with anaemia. I was fatigued and had no energy in training. My performance levels had dropped so much, and I didn’t know what was going on. Eventually, I had a blood test and got treatment. But it took me at least three months to get back into it, and I’d lost my place on the team. That was a huge blow.”
“And then, a year later, just after I got back to my normal performance levels, I had to have a hip operation. I had an internal tear in my hip and had gone 10 months without knowing. Yes, I’d had some pain, but it would come and go. I remember being on the leg press in the gym and suddenly feeling my hip crack. I did get some physiotherapy at first, but my swimming doctor recommended an MRI scan. I had to go for an operation the next week. If I hadn’t got it done, then I would’ve got arthritis in my hip. For a 15-year-old that’s not what you want to hear.”
“That was Christmas 2016, and I wasn’t able to get back in the pool until April 2017. Four months out of the pool is a long time. If you’re out for a week, you already start losing the feel for the water. Right from the day after the operation I had to do all kinds of exercises to get the mobility back into my hip. It was so frustrating. I had lots of breakdowns, and even my mum had breakdowns because my frustration is her frustration.”
“The setbacks have made me stronger and more determined”
“The level I had been at and then losing all of it and having to start all over again was hard. I had just got back into Team GB again to do the trials for the European Junior Championships in April 2017 in Helsinki, and I missed out on that.”
“But, finally, this summer, I’ve won a major title again in the National Championships in Sheffield. I could prove that I’m at my optimum level right now. I managed to achieve my personal best. I’m now fourth in the British Swimming Rankings for 200m backstroke. This is where I need to be. It’s taken me a long time, but I’m back now.”
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. But, the times I was out have also made me realise that life without swimming is not an option for me. So, the setbacks have made me stronger and more determined.”
“I’d love to win an Olympic gold medal”
So, what are her dream goals for the future?
“I’d love to win an Olympic gold medal. That would be my ultimate dream. I’d think that I have about three chances to achieve this: Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024, and Los Angeles 2028 probably being the last one.”
“But first, next summer, there are the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. That’s where I need to get to, and qualifying for that is in March next year. So, not that long to prepare. But, yeah winning a major title in the World Championships is my next goal.”
“I feel that the determination I have in swimming will get me the career I want”
What about life beyond swimming?
“I know I can’t keep going as a swimmer forever, and swimmers usually retire in their late 20s. I‘d love to do a history degree at Loughborough University and then do another degree in Law after that. It’s going to be a long road at university, but I feel that the determination I have in swimming will copy over to my studies and get me the career that I want to have. I’d love to do something in criminal law.”
“Do something you love as it’s the best feeling in the world”
Has she got a philosophy on life?
“I do the swimming because I love it. And I feel you need to do something because you enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be anything like sport. It could be art or making jewellery or anything really.”
“Do something that makes you a happy person. And that’s actually what life is about, isn’t it? To be happy.“
“Do something you love as it’s the best feeling in the world.”
I hope that you feel inspired by Sophie’s story. Isn’t she is an amazing young woman?
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Caren is a UK-based B2B and B2C professional freelance writer. Using her expert knowledge, skills and personal experience in corporate and small business development, personal improvement and autism, she crafts content that makes people take action. Her work is found in retail publications, professional websites, on her writer’s platform StoryBlog and more. When she isn’t typing away on her keyboard, you can see her having her nose buried in a book or hiking up and down the steep hills of the Yorkshire countryside with her husband, son and daughter.
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