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George’s reflections off the water

Published: 
Monday, July 28, 2014
Bovell hopes to swim for T&T at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil.

From August 5 and every Tuesday, T&T’s Olympian swimmer George Bovell will be writing a column called Reflections Off The Water. In this column, Bovell will seek to inspire by giving revealing insights into the man out of the swimming pool. Joshua Surtees caught up with Bovell to hear about some of his musings. 

George Bovell is holed up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, training for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where he will fly out to just days after this interview. 

Towards the end of the conversation which took place via Skype, he holds up a book a friend has lent him and shows off the cover. 

“It’s called Writing Down The Bones, by Natalie Goldberg” he says, before adding the subtitle, “Freeing the Writer Within.” 

He is wondering how columnists fill a column week in, week out, as he prepares himself to start his own weekly column in the T&T Guardian. In the past, Bovell wrote for the Express, but that was fortnightly. The book, he says, is inspiring him.

Bovell first got enthusiastic about the idea of writing a column after going to Uganda in 2013 with swimmer friend Max Kanyarezi, to take part in a malaria project. He came back “fired up and full of ideas.”

“A lot of it came out of my own personal struggles, out of this microcosm of esoteric stuff about the sport of swimming that could be applied to the wider context of life,” he says. “With some exciting first-person narratives.”

But he’s modest. “I’m not trying to sound like an expert. I don’t want to make myself look cool. If I can hopefully impart some sort of inspiration that will help someone out there who’s going through a hard time I think it will have justified the whole thing.”

It’s revealing to see the Olympian swimmer applying himself to a field outside of his comfort zone and putting in the kind of preparation for writing that he might devote to a major tournament. 

He should have no worries really—he’s just spent the better part of an hour talking about all manner of fascinating topics: Free diving at a depth of 117 feet while holding your breath for four minutes; Olympic champion Michael Phelps coming out of retirement; security clampdowns at the London Olympics; the “abysmal” swimming facilities in T&T; the new national swimming centre named after him; and his proudest achievement (not winning the bronze, the Chaconia or the Hummingbird medals, but breaking the world record).

It’s clear from his eloquence and the thought he puts into things that he won’t be short of things to say. 

Guardian readers and the T&T public will, no doubt, look forward to the weekly instalments from his life in his column Reflections Off The Water. He’s George Bovell, after all, T&T’s most recognised Olympian after Ato Boldon and Hasely Crawford. He’s the winner of T&T’s only Olympic medal for swimming and the first non-Athletics medal since Rodney Wilkes and Lennox Kilgour won weightlifting medals in 1952.

His writing is an outlet for a clearly restless mind and, perhaps, a way of diversifying his time and output when the swimming career eventually comes to a close. 

George Bovell’s first Reflections off the Water column will appear on August 5.

Two more years at the top 

It’s been a long and productive career for the 31-year-old, whose Olympic career began at the age of just 17 in Sydney, when he placed in the heats of the 100m Freestyle, and the 200m and 400m Individual Medley. 

He says he has two years left in swimming and fully intends to be at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

“If you wanna be at the top of the sport, this is the ultimate rat race,” he says in an accent that isn’t distinctively Trinidadian (he says he speaks more Trini when talking to other Trinis and less Trini when speaking to foreigners). “I have to get out of the country and train with top-level athletes and go places where I can get intuitive feedback.” 

Hence the Michigan project, where Bovell’s coach is now head coach. He says he will revolve around the University of Michigan as a training base in between international events, the most important of which this year is not the Commonwealth Games but the World Championships in Doha, Qatar in December. 

To achieve his aim of a record fifth Olympics in 2016, it’s not so much the physical barriers he has to overcome, he explains.

“It’s not a question of what your body can do, I think your 30s are your real prime—it’s just the opportunity cost gets higher. Because, to be at the top level of this sport you have to really commit to it and there’s not much room for other aspects of your life.”

It’s something people forget when thinking about top-level sport—bombarded with the lifestyles of rich and famous athletes in the Premier League, La Liga, NFL and NBA, it’s easy to forget there are sports which still sit at the intersection of amateur and professional. They require sacrifice and the generosity of parents, benefactors or the government to fund athletes competing at the highest level.

Bovell extends the sacrificial train of thought, saying one has to choose whether they want to “experience a very broad range of experiences in life or whether you want to experience one thing, very deeply. I’ve tried to find the balance as best as I could.”

Asked about the struggles he speaks of, he says he was told about swimmers whose parents pushed them hard, who told tales of misery—getting up before the crack of dawn to swim endless laps in a freezing cold pool before school. 

So did he decide to become a swimmer or did somebody decide for him?

“Swimming was decided for me. I was doing many sports and, at around eight years old, I got to travel for swimming, I went to Martinique, and it was something that wasn’t a team trip with football or gymnastics, and I got serious about it.” 

It sounds like the individualism of the swimmer was appealing.

And does he feel, like Mark Spitz, more comfortable in the water than on land?

“No, but I enjoy it. It’s the closest feeling you can get to flying.”

His speciality, 50m freestyle, he describes as “the closest race in all of sport.” Sometimes first and last place are separated by mere hundredths of a second.

Incredibly, in this ultra-fast sport (one lap of an Olympic-sized pool, in which competitors move at around 2.3 metres per second or 5.3 miles per hour) swimmers must hold their breath for the entire lap.

But the mind-bending part of it, for Bovell, is the psychology. You have to “get as pumped up as possible—while at the same time remaining composed,” he says. 

On the starting blocks swimmers hold their breath even before the starter calls, “On your marks.” 

“You take a big breath standing up, because it’s hard to take a full inhalation of air in the crouched position, and at the same time you’re trying to get yourself into their state of excitement and arousal but remaining very, very calm so you can hold your breath.”

Most swimmers remain underwater, dolphin-kicking, for 15 metres before surfacing. Some stay under for longer. Even when they surface they don’t breathe, but stay face down in the water.

“To turn your head, and inhale and exhale, would break your rhythm and slow your tempo,” Bovell explains “and you can’t exhale as much air as you’ve just taken in. You’re slightly more buoyant and, in a race that close, you can win or lose by how high you float, or by taking a breath.”

‘We joke and call ourselves the Third World All-Stars’

Bovell loves to travel and it’s that and the “fraternity” feel of the swimming community that has maintained his love for the sport. 

“Within about 12 days (of his first international competition) I’d been drawn into the centre. People introduce you to somebody who introduces you to somebody else…”

He’s already been to Brazil and to Qatar three times. Of London in 2012 he says he enjoyed it, but there was a “suppressive feel of security.” Squads of guys in black jumpsuits holding rifles in the village, missiles on roofs, helicopters circling. He says the psychological impact was intense for the athletes. Asked who his friends are in swimming, and whether Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is amongst them, Bovell says no. 

“I’m from T&T: We don’t even have places to sit sometimes, because the bigger teams take all the seats and pool deck space. Generally people from those larger teams tend to look down on us, ‘Oh, you’re from Trinidad, you must be Third World. What are you doing here?’ We’re not respected.

“One of my good friends is a Kenyan swimmer, Jason Dunford, we’ve kind of formed a support group for each other. We joke and call ourselves the Third World All-Stars.”

“We can’t even host an international swimming event here,” he says disconsolately. 

But next May the George Bovell Aquatic Centre will be completed and unveiled. It’s an honour for a man for whom the sport of swimming has brought him so much and which he loves immensely. 

Asked what his proudest achievement in the sport is, you’d expect him to say the bronze he won in Athens—a tangible reminder of success—but his answer is the hallmark of a true athlete.

“At one time I broke the world record and I held it for two years. To me, as an old man, I’ll look back and say, ‘Once I was the best there was.’”

 

 

 

Fact-File

 

Bovell is a four-time Olympian, having represented T&T at the Olympic Games in Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). 
At the 2004 Olympics in Greece, Bovell created history when he became the first swimmer from T&T to win a medal in an Olympic event, winning bronze in the Men’s 200 metre Individual Medley (IM). 
A former world record holder, he also nabbed the bronze medal in the Men’s 100 metre IM (Short Course) at the 2012 World Short Course Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, creating history by becoming the first T&T swimmer to win a World Championship medal. 
He went on to have an impressive 2013, winning bronze in the 50m freestyle at the World Championships and recording an outstanding 13-medal haul at the FINA World Cup (one gold, five silver and seven bronze medals). 
For these extraordinary achievements in 2013, he was named the T&T Olympic Committee’s Sports Personality of the Year, the Trinidad Express Individual of the Year and among the Top 10 nominees at the 2014 First Citizens Sports Foundation Awards.

Courtesy georgebovellswimming.com and Atlantic.​