ELITE sport is like an iceberg. When the world tunes in to watch athletes standing beaming at the top of the winner’s podium or proudly showing off shiny medals, then what they’re seeing is only a tiny percentage of the process.

The majority takes place away from the crowds and the cameras; the unspeakably early starts, the monotonous daily grind, the sacrifices, the mental strain, the physical demands. Without all of that, there would be no chance to occasionally soak up the spotlight.

At 21 years old, Craig McLean has weighed it all up and decided the potential rewards no longer make the rest worthwhile. 
A bronze medallist at both the Commonwealth Games and European Games less than two years ago, the Livingston swimmer could have pushed to compete at the Olympics this summer.

Instead, he has chosen to hang up his goggles for good, burned out by the demands of a sport that can turn teenagers into superstars but requires a commitment to excellence that leaves no room for anything else. With a management degree to complete and troubled by a niggling shoulder injury, McLean has decided enough is enough.

“A lot of people probably don’t appreciate the commitment you have to put in,” he said. “They only really see the end result which is racing at the major events. That’s the best part of it. I’d race all the time if I could. But that wasn’t the issue. It was preparing for the races that takes up 95 per cent of your time.

“There wasn’t one definite thing that led to this but everything was just starting to add up. I was getting quite bogged down by it.
“It’s a full-on sport with a lot of training. And it is hard when you don’t see that pay off. Between the ages of 16 and 18 I didn’t record a PB [personal best] for three years despite all the training I was doing. There’s a lot of hours of monotonous training sessions. And you can’t socialise that much as your head’s in the water.

“A lot of things that people do sport for, swimming doesn’t have that. If you can find the rewards at the end of it then it makes it all worth it. But if you just go to a session without committing fully to it then you’ll find yourself burnt out quite quickly.

“You’d just feel knackered. Coming out of training and having to write an essay at half eight at night – it was really difficult. Getting up at 5am is tiring but it’s more just mentally exhausting. You spend your whole day thinking about swimming as you know you’ve got more training later in the day and have to motivate yourself for that. It really drains you.

“It was a full-on commitment and I found I couldn’t switch off. It did grind me down a bit towards the end. I felt I had dug myself into a hole that I couldn’t get out of.

“I had thought over my decision for a while so by the time I told the coaches I knew this was going to be good for me. It was a weight off my shoulders. I felt happier and brighter once it was done.”

“Qualifying for Tokyo would have been an undoubted career highlight but even thinking about the process was too much.

“The Olympics had been in my head for a while. It would have been great to have gone and tried for it but it just felt like one hurdle too many for me.

“To get to the Olympics – it’s the cliche about giving 110 per cent. I just felt I wasn’t able to do that. I was only giving 70 per cent of myself. It just felt like this was my time to stop. The desire and drive just weren’t there for me any more.”

McLean looks back on his career with pride, listing his relay bronze in Gold Coast as the undoubted highlight. He credits coach Steven Tigg at the University of Stirling for his support and understanding.

“I spoke to Steve a lot about this,” he added. “I had a rough year last year and he kept me going. He offered me an alternative training regime to try to make it easier. But it was the basics I was struggling with. He understood, though. He knows the demands and what it takes. He congratulated me on having a good career which meant a lot.”

McLean has made his peace with his decision and there will be no going back.

“I’ll miss competing. Every elite athlete has that burning desire to win and giving everything after a long block of training. 

“But there are no repercussions now if I want to have a beer with my dinner once or twice a week. That’s a luxury you can’t afford as an athlete at that level.

“I spoke to my parents about it and they just wanted me to be happy. That’s what really matters.”