Ashley Newman, FINA Aquatics World Magazine Correspondent (GBR)

In September 2018, Jack Burnell told the British broadcaster BBC Sport that this season had been the “worst season of my life”. And that is a big claim from a man who was disqualified just metres from the finish line in the 10km final at the Olympic Games just two years ago, where he was in the form of his life and in position to win gold.

Being the first British athlete to gain a quota place for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, things were looking good for Great Britain’s top marathon swimmer. Having only made the switch from the pool in 2013, he claimed fifth at the 2015 World Championships and made clear his potential in the lead-up to his Olympic debut in Brazil.

Putting those wrongs of Rio right in Tokyo

However, his swimming fortunes took a turn for the worse after the rough and tumble that is open water swimming took out Jack Burnell’s potential golden victory. After taking the lead in the closing stages, a tussle with defending Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli resulted in neither reaching the podium, with Mellouli eventually finishing 12th and Burnell being disqualified from the race altogether. Claiming that the Tunisian had held his leg for several strokes and that his own disqualification was a result of reacting to try and release himself from Mellouli’s grasp, Burnell was left furious and seriously questioning his future in the sport.

But, as all elite athletes do, he dusted himself off with his eye firmly fixed on putting “those wrongs of Rio right in Tokyo”. And in doing so he stormed to victory the following year at the 2017 FINA World Cup in Abu Dhabi, beating 2016’s eventual Olympic champion, Ferry Weertman, in the process.

Yet, he had to dust himself off for a second time after finishing behind Weertman in fourth place at the 2017 World Championships, followed by breaking his rib twice in training in 2018 and then viral illnesses just before the start of the World Series. He did bounce back despite an undeniably painful year, as he still managed to stay on the tail of the Dutch champion, sitting second in the rankings after this year’s World Series race in Abu Dhabi.

While the ultimate Olympic success is still on the horizon for Burnell, after starting up his own business at the age of 22 he has clearly already found success out of the pool. Alongside his business of supplying kit for swimming events, he has several ventures, including those in the commercial side of football, which he plans to pursue post swimming career. And, it is without a doubt that his fierce competitiveness and resilience will stand him in good stead for the ups and downs of the corporate world, as it has done in the ferocious world of open water swimming.

“Things happen for a reason”

It feels like the sport of open water has grown a lot since you first started in 2013?

Definitely. If you look at the development of how the marathon and running went, you know the numbers grew at mass participation level and then interest at the higher level grew at the same time. Anything that pushes mass participation and involvement from the general public is great for us guys at the top.

The growth could also be put down to some of the more controversial aspects of the sport as it seems like a combination of swimming and boxing at times – and you felt the sharp end of that in Rio, how was that for you at the time?

It really is sometimes like boxing and obviously that’s not what the sport promotes and it shouldn’t be too much like that, but when you’ve got the top guys trying to fight for medals and they’ve put all that hard work in, sometimes it does come down to that. From my point of view the situation in Rio was obviously very hard to take at the time and it felt like robbery really, considering the shape I was in and the form I was in to win that gold medal. But things happen for a reason and I just had to go back to the drawing board and learn from it best I could, and push forward and try to put those wrongs of Rio right in Tokyo.

You described it as a trauma and that you had nightmares afterwards?

There were points where I was very willing to walk away from the sport. The fact that I had trained for that amount of time and had that taken away from me was obviously very hard to take. But then I got together with the team and sat down and realised that the only way we are going to put it right was if we go to Tokyo.

What would you have liked to have said to Mellouli after that race and have you spoken to him since?

I haven’t spoken to him since, no. I would have quite liked to see him after the race but I got removed from the venue by the security team. Obviously at the time it probably wouldn’t have been one of the greatest of ideas to have both met. I don’t really have anything to say to him at all, I think he obviously knows what happened. He even said in the interview when the British media asked him: “Oh I don’t know, I’d have to check the footage”. Well you know if you’ve done something like that or you haven’t. So I don’t owe him anything, he doesn’t owe me anything. I wouldn’t expect an apology, it just is what it is. If that’s the way he wants to leave his legacy in the sport then he can do that.

“It was also probably the least important year of my career”

Do you feel that now, a few years on, you’ve moved on and you can put it into perspective?

Massively. I feel like that’s something I’m going to use going forward as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. I’ve put myself in many situations in races that I know I can get out of and again it’s just a tool that I can draw on when things go a little bit south in a race.

You said before the Olympics in Rio that your peak would be Tokyo, so has what happened in Rio changed your preparations in any way?

Not particularly. No, I think from our point of view Rio was a bit of a ‘let’s just see what happens’ with all intentions to win, and I was definitely in the shape to do so, but Tokyo was always going to be the peak. We’ve ploughed forward with the strategy that we were using in Rio and added on to that, and hopefully that combination will do us well in Tokyo.

You recently said that this has been the worst season of your life, what are the obstacles you’ve had to overcome this season?

It’s been hard for me as the type of athlete that I am – I love the big occasion and I love the big events – and obviously there haven’t been many of those this year. The year started off badly with a broken rib and then the first race that we had in Doha in the World Series I was violently ill beforehand. Then just before the race in Setubal I broke my rib again, but I still swam that race and managed to come away with third. Although it was the worst season with my career, in terms of preparation, it was also probably the least important year of my career. I couldn’t really complain in terms of the timing in the four-year cycle. It’s just frustrating when you want to go to the World Series to win the World Series.

“If there’s an opportunity there I’m quite happy to take it”

You started up your own business in 2015, how has that been going?

I started that pre-Rio which is quite good, but I just couldn’t sustain the time and energy doing that and training at the same time. I’ve got a couple of other ventures that are coming to fruition now, including an online training platform called Elevate which I’m quite excited about, I’m also working quite closely in the commercial side of football and that’s something that I’d like to pursue post swimming career. There’s all sorts of stuff going on outside of swimming which I need to keep me ticking over in the pool, I’d go stir crazy otherwise.

You’ve had quite an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age it seems?

When Jamie Oliver’s healthy schools (programme) kicked in, they took out all the sweets but then kids would still come to school with pocket money which they would want to spend on sweets, not the salad that was in the canteen. I saw that opportunity (selling sweets) and made a few quid that way. It’s just something that I’ve always had in me and always pursued, no matter what. If there’s an opportunity there I’m quite happy to take it.

Have you thought about what lies ahead after Tokyo? You have a great career on the sideline, but do you still see a long career ahead in the world of open water swimming?

I haven’t put a label on it, when it’s going to end. I’ve got some things I want to do in my career in and out of swimming but it’s very hard to look past Tokyo and what’s going to happen there. Goals and targets after Tokyo will be drawn up from that result. It’s anyone’s guess what the plan will be post Tokyo.