“To race Phelps is like boxing Muhammad Ali,” says James Guy as he reflects back on his Olympic Games debut. “It’s something I will never forget.”
The boy from Bury came up against the best swimmer of all time at Rio 2016, and in his swansong no less. So, if you are going to be overtaken in an Olympic final, it could perhaps be a consolation that it is by Michael Phelps as he closes his incredible chapter in the sport’s history. But, assures Guy, the next Games will be “a completely different story”.
On top of those early Olympic lessons, as he prepares to improve on that men’s 4x100m medley relay silver at the Tokyo Games – without Phelps – will be the fact that he has an extra year at his disposal, given that the worldwide pandemic meant the postponement of the Games in 2020. What a wait we have on our hands.
Guy (GBR) racing Michael Phelps (USA) at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
“I think it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise really”
“Being back in the pool, I’m probably in one of the best shapes of my life,” says Guy. “The times I’ve been doing – I’ve been absolutely training the house down. We were going 2.50s, 2.51s – for 300s from a push at the end of a set – and I was like, ‘I haven’t done this since I was 19’.”
Considering Guy has been back training at his elite training facility at the University of Bath only since May, the signs are good – and that lockdown will not have had a detrimental effect on his performance when competition resumes.
It is not surprising that he should be coming back with a bang, with the start of his career seeing him become world champion in the 200m freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relay at the age of 19 in 2015, before taking on Phelps in his very first Olympics just a year later. “Looking back at it I remember when Phelps walked out for his 200 fly final – and that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stick up – that’s what happened to me. I was like, ‘oh my God this is the real deal’.”
Guy (GBR) at Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships ©Getty Images
On racing him in the thrilling men’s 4x100 medley relay in which team-mate and world record-holder Adam Peaty put Guy ahead before Phelps had even left the block, he says: “He’s the greatest of all time, so to race him head to head like that was a real privilege. I’m the guy who’s known for racing Phelps head to head in the medley relay at the last of his races. That was me next to him. I was just a young kid taken in by it all but right now, looking back, I’ve learnt a lot through the last four years and it’ll be a different story [at the Tokyo Games], I’ll tell you that. A completely different story.”
Given this signal of intent already played out at the 2019 World Championships when the British boys took gold from the United States in the men’s 4x100 medley relay, they will definitely be the ones to watch in Japan.
Speaking with the 24-year-old on the day that the 2020 Olympic Games should have commenced had it not been for the COVID-19 outbreak might have brought a sense of sadness, but instead Guy remains positive about the impact the delay will have on his swimming future.
“I think it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise really,” says Guy.
After switching coaches from Jol Finck to Dave McNulty in July 2019 he adds: “It’s another year with Dave to get things right.”
Under water shot from Guy (GBR) in Gwangju 2019 ©Getty Images
“I did a 70-mile bike ride one day”
Slowly coming to the realisation of the scope and seriousness of the pandemic was no different for Guy and the British team as it was for the rest of the country and indeed, the world. “Back at the end of March we came back from Australia from training camp – myself, Tom Dean and Freya Anderson. We were absolutely killing it and we came back and we were like, ‘things are getting pretty serious now’.
“After our head coach said that the British trials were cancelled, we were like, ‘oh God, OK. They’re going to base the Olympic team off the World Champs last year’. Then Dave gave us the rest of the week off because obviously the trials were cancelled and then on that Friday, four days later, we were told the university was going to shut, so everyone went home. Within two weeks we were told the Games were cancelled. And you know what, when I was told, I thought, ‘actually it’s another year, another opportunity to get even better’. It was quite upsetting at the time but it’s always about the long-term picture, thinking everything happens for a reason.”
However, like many, Guy found himself wrestling with the realities of a new life in the realm of a global pandemic as England followed other nations into lockdown. “It was something that was quite mentally challenging. Me and my girlfriend broke up, so that was even harder.
“At one point it was really tough because you can’t see anyone, you can’t do anything, you are inside all day, so at one point my head was all over the place. But then you have to think about the long-term goals and try to keep focus.
“Lockdown was tough. We were training straight away, we were on Zoom every day, twice a day, five days a week. We never actually stopped. We were doing circuits, we were doing weights in the garage, so there was never actually a physical break, which is really hard. Going for runs, cycling, doing all this stuff I would have never done before. I bought an expensive bike, so got into that quite a bit. I did a 70-mile (110-km) bike ride one day – just something completely wild.”
While the switch to land training provided a good way to maintain fitness, the generosity of a local pool provider meant that Guy and a select few team-mates were able to keep swimming through lockdown, by having a temporary pool tank installed at their homes. “You can imagine doing circuits when we never do circuits. Swimmers are not meant to be on land, that’s not the way we work. But then Bedfordshire Hot Tubs offered me a pool to have in the back garden. It was fantastic. I was in there for an hour a day with the cord attached to me and that helped massively. Coming back into the pool, my feel for the water is still there.”
Guy (GBR) at the European Championships Glasgow 2018 ©Getty Images
“It’s hard not having an end goal”
That was not to say that the return to the pool would be easy, since there was now an absence of competition. “It’s hard not having an end goal,” says Guy. “You’re thinking, ‘what are we doing this for?’ We had a meeting with Dave and he said: ‘Don’t even think about the Olympics. Don’t think about competing because it’s not happening’.
“It would be different if we were competing because you’re travelling, you’re getting excited and you’re more at race pace but the time right now is to just get fit and strong.”
Then, after their three-week summer break, as Guys adds, “we come back and Dave will sell the Olympic dream and we’ll get ready for the Olympic shift again.”
Aside from training, that extra time afforded by not being at the Olympics has allowed Guy to focus on other things and connect with his fellow athletes.
“Obviously when you’re not having morning training you go to bed later and later, so we started playing Xbox, playing Call of Duty and War Zone. Myself, Adam Peaty, my friends from home, Kyle Chalmers, Alex Graham, the Australian boys, were playing until half two in the morning. You get really into it, you’re shouting at half one in the morning – Mum and Dad were getting pretty annoyed at that.”
Though not all of his down time has been spent in front of a console. “I also created my own website called James Guy Performance Coaching. It’s hand-written sessions by me, for any athlete of any age of any calibre, and bespoke to their specific event. The COVID plan is quite popular. I’m just trying to give back, rather than be on my backside all day, trying to keep my mind busy and to keep engaged with a lot of swimmers.
“A lot of swimmers were struggling. I got a lot of questions about how you can keep motivated and I was thinking that we are all in the same position here. I do feel for the kids who aren’t swimming, it’s quite horrible really.”
Guy (GBR) and Phelps (USA) at Rio 2016 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
While he aspires to go into property rather than coaching once he eventually retires from the sport, he is keen to inspire the next generation of swimmers. “The Olympic medals and the World Championship gold, they haven’t really sunk in – I don’t think they ever will do. But then the little ones, like the British Champs, I just give them away because they don’t really have any sentimental value. Adam Peaty’s the same, he just gives them all away because at the end of the day you would rather keep the Olympic medal. You know that kid who’s got the British trials medal is going to love that because they’re going to be there one day and remember that ‘oh, James gave me a medal from the trials’ and they’re going to get a massive buzz off of that.”
So where does he keep his treasured Olympic medals? “They’re kind of everywhere,” admits Guy, after revealing on Instagram that he had managed to lose one. “I honestly didn’t know where it was, I looked all over the house for it. It was actually at Mum and Dad’s under the bed.”
The placement of his next Olympic medals may be a completely different story, however, as he writes what could be the defining and golden moment in his own chapter in swimming history.