Sarah Sjöström (17 August, 1993) is a Swedish butterfly, freestyle, and backstroke swimmer and is fast developing into a dominant force in her specialty, the 100m butterfly.
Sarah’s rise through the international swimming ranks has been short, but it has been nothing short of meteoric. Having started showing promise in junior and youth championships, she was elevated to the Swedish senior team in 2007, and stunned Europe (if not the world) by winning the 100m butterfly at the 2008 European Championships, beating the heavily favoured Inge Dekke in the process. She was 14 years old at the time.
Later in the year she participated in the Beijing Olympics, and despite not progressing beyond the heats in her two individual events – 100m butterfly and 100m backstroke – she gained valuable experience on swimming’s biggest stage. She also swam in the 4x100m medley relay final in which the Swedish team was disqualified.
If her 2008 European success seemed like a flash in the pan, her 2009 World Championship performance proved otherwise, as she smashed the world record twice – in the semi-final and final – on the way to an incredible 100m butterfly victory. In two short years her rankings had climbed dramatically, from 77th in 2007 to first in the 100m fly, and from 65th to 7th in the 50 fly.
In 2010 she established herself as a permanent presence on the international podium by successfully defending her European 100m butterfly crown in Budapest, and narrowly missing out on medals in the 50m fly and 100m freestyle.
Having consolidated her position in 2011 as a force to be reckoned with in 50m and 100m butterfly, Sarah also widened her repertoire, steadily climbing up the rankings in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle. While her performances at the World Championships in Shanghai might have been disappointing in terms of race placings – she finished fourth in each of the 50m fly, 100m fly, and 200m freestyle – she nonetheless posted her personal textile best in the 100m fly and her all-time personal best in the 200m freestyle, breaking the Swedish record in the process. However, she ended the year in style by posting the fastest-ever 100m free in a textile suit at the Dutch Open Long Course Nationals in December, her 53.05 setting her up nicely for the big event of the following year, the 2012 Olympics.
In preparation for the London Games, Sjöström won the 100m freestyle ahead of world record holder Britta Steffen, and was also victorious in the 50m fly (a non-Olympic event) at the European Championships in Debrecen. She also picked up a silver medal as part of the Swedish 4x100m freestyle relay team. Going into the big event in July, she had the second fastest 100m free of the year-to-date, was the second-fastest 100m fly swimmer, and the third fastest 200m free swimmer. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to the form book, and she went home without a medal – she ended fourth in 100m fly (missing third by less than a quarter of a second), did not progress beyond the semi-finals in her three individual freestyle events (50m, 100m, 200m), and as a member of the Swedish 4x100m relay team, swam the second leg in the final, in which they came eighth.
In the space of 18 whirlwind months, Sarah Sjöström’s life changed dramatically. It started on 22nd March, 2008, when she walked out as a somewhat dazed and blissfully ignorant – and therefore relaxed and fearless – 14-year-old on to the starting blocks for the European 100m butterfly final in Eindhoven. Having jolted the swimming world with her surprise victory in Holland, the dream continued to spiral, culminating in two numbing days on 26th and 27th July, 2009, in the Eternal City, when she swam her way into the record books with new world marks on both days, along with a world title on the second. She was still three weeks away from her 16th birthday.
She admits to having been totally unfamiliar with protocol, procedure, and her competitors in Eindhoven, and has never really been a ‘student’ of swimming history. But none of that matters if you can swim like she does. Besides, the stunning performances that sparked her remarkable rise through the ranks – along with the associated publicity – have both matured her and given her confidence. She believes in herself and is convinced she can still improve, even challenge the times she swam in the hi-tech suit era that ended in 2009. These are ominous words for her rivals.
For someone who defended a world title before her 18th birthday, Sarah shows a healthy balance of youthful exuberance and developing maturity. She doesn’t get depressed after an unsuccessful race, and tries to learn from it and move forward immediately. “There's no point being sad over individual losses, there will always be new races,” she says. In the next breath, she’s enthusing: “Be sure to have fun! It’s when you're having fun that the results come.”
She can readily tell you what she needs to eat before and after training, and how her body deals with simple and complex carbohydrates. And she keeps herself focused with motivational sound bytes; they’re scattered throughout her web site and blog: “Don't limit your challenges, challenge your limits!”, “Motivation is like food for the brain. You cannot get enough in one sitting, it needs continual and regular refills”, and “The door to success is the one marked PUSH”. Thoughtful and provocative stuff for someone of her age.
There aren’t many athletes with the prodigious talent that Sarah has. There are even fewer with the upbeat, simple philosophy that she has, something that has proven to be a winning combination with her work ethic and determination. One wonders how she’ll be when she’s twenty...