FOR most athletes, the postponement of the Olympic Games was a disappointment, but meant only they had an extra year to prepare for the biggest sporting event on the planet. 

For Craig Benson however, the one-year delay meant he was faced with a monumental, life-changing decision; should he, as planned, move onto the next chapter of his life and begin the job he had lined-up for this autumn or should he put his move into the ‘real world’ on hold and continue swimming for another year in an attempt to make it to his third Olympic Games? 

“When Tokyo was postponed, I realised all my plans were out the window, and that was tough,” said Benson. 

“One good thing for me about lockdown was that I had plenty of time to think about things and I have to admit I changed my mind a lot. I was trying to weigh everything up and there was so much going through my head.” 

Benson has been a stalwart of the British swimming team for almost a decade and having spent his entire adult life as a full-time swimmer, the 26-year-old had begun to turn his thoughts towards moving into the world of work.  

An internship at the financial services company EY in 2018 had led to the offer of a highly sought-after grad position the following summer but with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, Benson delayed his start until this year. However, the postponement of the Olympics threw his well thought-out plan into disarray with the breaststroker wondering if he should surrender his ambitions to make it to Tokyo or turn down his dream job. It was the sporting equivalent of Sophie’s choice but eventually, after much deliberation, Benson made his decision. 

“Even if I put everything into my swimming for the next year, realistically, it would be very hard to get to Tokyo. In the event I compete in, the top two in the world, Adam Peaty and James Wilby, are British and to get in the GB team you need to be in the top two in the country. So the chances of me qualifying for Tokyo were probably not in my favour – I could swim a time that could potentially medal in Tokyo but still not get in the GB team,” he said. 

“And I didn’t want to delay my job by another year because you just don’t know how things are going to look by next year so that could potentially have ramifications for the rest of my working life. And I’d worked really hard to get this job so giving up the opportunity would have been tough.” 

So, with the decision made to begin working, the next dilemma was where that left his swimming. Benson’s last competitive outing was at the Edinburgh International in March and for someone who has swum on the biggest stages of them all, he knew he didn’t want that to be his swansong. 

Alongside his coaching team at the University of Stirling, Benson devised a plan which would see the breast-stroker, who until now has specialised in the 100m, turn his attentions to the 50m and focus on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. 

For the last few months then, Benson’s life has been utterly unrecognisable to the routine he has followed since he was a teenager.  

Having begun his full-time job, Benson now drags himself out of bed three mornings a week at the crack of dawn to get his pool sessions in before his working day begins. It is quite a departure from the nine or ten swims, plus gym and everything else, he undertook as a full-time athlete but Benson admits he is, at the moment at least, thoroughly enjoying his new life. 

“I wasn’t in my best shape post-lockdown just because it was a long time out the pool and I’ve found that even with only three sessions a week, I’m getting better every week,” he said. 

“Also, when I was swimming ten times a week, I always gave it my best but it sometimes was hard to motivate myself whereas now, doing fewer sessions, I really look forward to going to training and I know I have to make the most of every session.  

“Another big change is that I’m swimming now because I’m choosing to swim. When I was aiming for the Olympics, there was a lot of pressure, especially competing against the likes of Peaty and Wilby whereas now, I’m only competing against myself and that’s a really nice feeling.” 

All going to plan, Benson anticipates his first competitive outing will be the Scottish Short-Course Championships in mid-December which will give him an idea of how his new training regime is working. All going well, he will then look forward to the sprints at the 2022 Commonwealth Games while beyond that, retirement is potentially on the cards.  

For now, hanging up his goggles is the furthest thing from his mind but Benson admits he is also enjoying dipping his toe into a world without elite-level swimming. 

“I really don’t know how I’ll feel about actually retiring but I think this has been a nice way to start to transition,” he said.  

“These days, I don’t feel the same pressure to have perfect nutrition and things like that – some years I’d go a full year without having a drink whereas now, I don’t feel under the same pressure to be quite so strict. 

“At the moment, I’m loving doing both – if work has been busy, it’s great to be able to focus on swimming to take my mind off things and vice versa. So, for now at least, I’m really enjoying having this balance.”