IN the immediate aftermath of becoming Olympic champion,  Kathleen Dawson felt just as much frustration as she did joy.

Despite fulfilling a life-long dream of winning gold last summer as part of GB’s mixed 4x100m relay team in a world record time, Dawson was left wondering what have been.

“After I’d swum at the Olympics, I was so frustrated that I could potentially have done better for the team and better for myself because of the physical state I was in,” she says. “Becoming Olympic champion was such a dream and I’m so grateful for having been able to do it, and I’m still a bit in disbelief that it happened. 

“But I know I could have done something better.”

Dawson’s frustration stemmed from a back injury that had plagued her for several months prior to Tokyo 2020, and almost a year on, continues to trouble her.

For the entirety of 2021, she kept quiet about her condition and the “agony” it was causing her.

It means she goes into this week’s British Championships, which begin on Tuesday in Sheffield and where Dawson will be defending the 100m and 200m backstroke titles, far more unsure of herself than most would expect of an Olympic champion.

The injury happened at just about the worst time possible,  following one of the best meets of her career in which she became European champion and European record holder. It was later discovered to be a bulging disk, which causes extreme nerve pain down her leg, and hampered her throughout the Tokyo Games.

The effort of enduring such physical pain was, she admits, exhausting, and something she is unsure she could ever repeat.

“I didn’t talk about my back last year for a few reasons but it didn’t get officially diagnosed until after the Olympics, which I’m actually glad of. I wouldn’t have wanted to have gone into the Olympics thinking I was injured and knowing I was compromised physically. So when it happened, I just got my head down and accepted I was going to have to compete with my back in this state,” she says. “There’s nothing, really, that can be done so it’s about managing it.

“But I really don’t want to put myself through all of that again this year. I think it might be the end of my career if I try to repeat what I did last summer, it was just so much. 

“Last year, I think my body and my mind were like ‘right, this is what I need to do’ but straight after the Games, my body just gave up on me, I was pretty debilitated for quite a while and was out of the pool for some time.”

Dawson’s ordeal means she goes into the British Championships, which double-up as the trials for the World and European Championships, as well as the Commonwealth Games, not knowing what her form will be like.

She has already turned much of her focus towards the Paris Olympics, which are now just over two years away, but despite her disrupted training schedule in recent months she is hopeful she can have a successful summer.

Having already been pre-selected for both the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games takes considerable pressure off this week and her impressive performances last year, despite being some way off full fitness, make her optimistic about what she could do if she was no longer hampered by injury.

“I guess it’s exciting to wonder what I can do fully fit. Now though, I’m just taking each day as it comes. My back is what it is and I just need to work out how to best manage it,” she says.

“Paris is the next big goal because realistically, I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do at Commies or at the Worlds this year so if I can get back into my best shape in 2024, I hopefully can do something I can be proud of. 

“This year, though, I’ll 100 per cent fight for it – it’s just about whether or not my body can match that. I’ve managed to do some time trials and  race a few times this year and my times are starting to come down, which is really promising.  I want to just go into this week and enjoy it. There’s no pressure on me at all which is a nice feeling so I’m there just to build my confidence back up and enjoy racing.”

A full quota of the best British swimming has to offer will be on show alongside Dawson in Sheffield this week, with Scotland’s Duncan Scott, Lucy Hope, Cassie Wild and Ross Murdoch all in action, as well as Olympic champions Adam Peaty, James Guy, Tom Dean and Freya Anderson.