Now at the tail end of his 20s, Christian Sprenger is considered a late bloomer in the world of swimming.
Olympic silver medallist swimmer Christian Sprenger could almost be considered too old for the international pool. At 28, an age where many begin to bow out of the strenuous sport, an ever-driven Sprenger is determined to push both personal and professional boundaries in his race to the top. Setting his sights on the 2016 Olympic Games at Rio, the Brisbane-born local steadfastly believes age is merely a “challenge, not a barrier”.
A relative newcomer to the swimming scene, late bloomer Sprenger shot to prominence following his silver medal win at the London Olympics in 2012. Since then, a series of impressive performances – including gold in the 100 metre breaststroke at the 2013 World Championships – have seen him continue to defy the rule that the best swimmers peak at a young age. Cementing his place alongside South Africa’s Cameron Van de Burgh as one of the top two breaststrokers in the world, Sprenger is a clear Australian favourite heading into the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this month.
Level-headed and articulate, Sprenger is one to espouse the benefits of balance. Though swimming seems to be in his blood (his cousin Nick Sprenger is a freestyle swimmer who represented Australia at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics), he’s never been without a backup plan. Including working the checkout at Woolworths as he attempted to make the Australian swim team, Sprenger now juggles a gruelling training regime with part-time university study and a bustling social life.
In between all this, the busy sporting star spoke with Sydney Observer about life in the lead up to the Glasgow Games.
How do you prepare mentally for a big event like the Commonwealth Games?
I think preparing mentally for big events comes naturally with physical preparation. Leading into it we do a lot of things physically conditioning for the body, so the mental state occurs when the physical side is becoming ready. I can mentally train myself to anticipate conditions, providing I can physically perform. It’s about making sure I’m physically fit, and if I am, I can mentally take myself to that next level.
Swimming Australia has undergone somewhat of a restructure since the London Olympics. Are you feeling confident about the Australian swim team’s performance in the Glasgow Games?
I’m definitely feeling confident about the Australian swimming team’s performance in the upcoming Glasgow Games. We’ve picked up a lot of younger athletes this time around and I think they’re learning a lot about, you know, how to perform and when to perform. Although there was a bit of a re-development stage [within Swimming Australia] following London, the team from the World Championships was a lot stronger, and I think the team going to the Glasgow games is going to be very, very strong. The more performances older athletes – like myself – can put on the table, I think the more the younger athletes can respond and want to perform well.
You said that the breaststroke field is going to be very strong at the games. Who is your main competitor and why?
In my main events, the 100 metre and 200 metre breaststroke, my primary competitor will be Cameron Van De Burgh from South Africa; he’s the reigning Olympic Champion. In the 200 metre breaststroke it’s Olympic Silver medallist Michael Jamieson from Scotland. So, between those two guys – and there’s also a lot of excellent British breaststroke swimmers – getting a gold medal is going to be a very tough job. I’m predicting to win an event and it will take a world record – or close to a world record – to get gold.
How do you balance everything, between part-time study and your intense training regime?
In terms of studying, it’s actually not too hard to balance, and I think it’s really important to have that aspect away from the pool – so swimming is not the only thing you’re doing. I know a lot of athletes that do that, and I think it has the potential to consume you a bit too much. Having a balanced lifestyle with an education and a good social life, and then obviously the sporting aspect, is crucial. Having those three elements can give me balance, which I really think is the best thing for me.
How did you begin competitive swimming?
We [my family] all swam a lot as kids, and I think we all got into it through a natural affinity for the sport. As we grew up, we stuck with it and as time progressed and we got older we decided whether to stick with it competitively or not. Myself and Nick, my cousin, really pushed it as far as we could, beyond school and into the games. That’s when my brother and sister stopped competitively swimming – in high school. It was the choice we made to push ourselves as far we could go, but there was obviously a natural ability for swimming in the family.
You mentioned previously that you think it’s important for athletes to have a backup plan for when they stop competing. What do you see yourself doing? Do you see yourself as being involved in some aspect of swimming?
At any point in time I could suffer from a shoulder injury or a knee injury or anything really, and I that’s also why I think having a decent backup plan is essential. I’m studying business and marketing at university at the moment, and I’d love to stay with the sport and stay involved as much as I can. I’d love to be involved also with the production of performance swimwear, and one of my sponsors, Speedo, has been great in helping me to crack into the design field with some of its swimwear, and it’s good experience for me for when I retire from swimming. In a few years’ time I could be somewhere in the design team, and that’s definitely an option I’d love to explore.
What do you love the most about your career as an Olympic swimmer?
It’s the racing aspect. Being able to walk out to the block and knowing that I’m prepared mentally and physically for a race. The competitive aspect is one of the best parts of it. The training is undoubtedly tough, but you know that it’s essential and all athletes are doing it around the world. If I can go into a competition being the fittest and the strongest, I can put myself in a position to win and that’s 100 per cent the most exciting part.
You mentioned the 2016 Rio Olympics. Are you hoping to compete?
It’s just seeing how each year goes and taking them as they come. I’m 28 now and it’s just about testing my body, and how I can push it still. A few years [ago] 26 and 27 [was seen] as the retirement age, and I think I’ve proven that changes can still be made at this age. That’s why I’m curious to see what I can do in 2016.