Jamaican swimmer is in the running

Alia Atkinson of Jamaica has competed in four Olympics, but the closest she has ever come to a podium finish was at the 2012 London Games, where she finished fourth in the 100m breaststroke final. In Rio this year, she finished last in same event and
Alia Atkinson of Jamaica has competed in four Olympics, but the closest she has ever come to a podium finish was at the 2012 London Games, where she finished fourth in the 100m breaststroke final. In Rio this year, she finished last in same event and said she was too fixated on the prospect of winning Jamaica's first Olympic swimming medal.ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Equalling a world record was a highlight for Alia Atkinson, but she aims to own it outright

Some parents have no qualms when it comes to gushing about their offspring's ability, especially if their child has competed in multiple Olympics and is a world championship medallist from Jamaica.

But ask Sharon Atkinson about her daughter's running style, and the 60-year-old bursts into laughter, awkwardly flapping her arms sideways as she illustrates her point: "She can't run - she runs like this ... it's not pretty."

To be fair, her daughter is swimmer Alia Atkinson, who is much more adept speeding in the water than she is on the track.

After all, the latter won Jamaica's first swimming world title, the 100m breaststroke at the 2014 short course world championships. It made her the first black woman in history to become a world champion in the pool.

Atkinson is also the first Jamaican swimmer to win a long course world championship medal, after her third-place finish in the same event at last year's world championships in Kazan.

Little wonder the 27-year-old prefers gliding in the water to legging it on land, despite growing up in a country known for its track and field dominance.

IN HER ELEMENT

I don't like to run and I don't like to be outside in the heat - I like the water.

ALIA ATKINSON, on why she took to swimming rather than sprinting in Jamaica.

Jamaica has 78 Olympic medals to date, of which 77 are from track and field. Cyclist David Weller won Jamaica's lone non-athletics medal when he bagged a bronze at the 1980 Moscow Games.

"People do think I'm weird (for choosing swimming over track and field) and they wonder why," said Atkinson after a training session for the Oct 21-22 Fina/airweave Swimming World Cup.

"But for me it made sense because I don't like to run and I don't like to be outside in the heat - I like the water."

Still, Atkinson was quick to insist: "I can run, maybe just not as fast. I guess my body is just more adapted to water and I feel more at ease in the water."

She may prefer water to land in a country where athletics is more popular than swimming, thanks to stars like Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, but Atkinson is on good terms with her track and field counterparts.

In fact, Bolt offered her some "sprinter tactics" at the 2012 London Games, after she finished fourth in the 100m breaststroke final, which remains the closest she has ever come to the podium at the Olympics.

Grinning widely as she recalled the interaction, Atkinson added: "In 2012, he told me I should have sprinted off the turn and been a little more forceful coming back home. In 2016 (at the Rio Games) it was more of encouraging me that I could do it - he was like a proud sibling."

But her mood turns serious as Atkinson reflects on her fourth Olympics outing this year, where she was last in the 100m breaststroke final.

Admitting she had been too fixated on the prospect of winning Jamaica's first Olympic swimming medal, she said: "You go to the Olympics thinking that it's so great and you're going to have a fantastic time, but the reality is it's another meet.

"You train for four years or 12 years or 21 years for this moment, and there's a possibility the moment might be bad. And nobody really realises that - I think you have to accept both parts of it when you're going into the race."

The swimmer has carried this acceptance with her throughout the Fina/airweave Swimming World Cup, and it paid off during the first stop of the competition in Paris at the end of August.

There, she equalled Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte's world record time of 1min 02.36sec en route to winning the 100m breaststroke gold.

She also won both the 50m and 100m breaststroke titles at the Doha leg of the competition last weekend, and Atkinson is hungry for more.

"I'm hoping to break the world record and claim it as my own, and I want to cut down on my times and see if I can go faster," she said.

Mother Sharon, who has accompanied the swimmer to the Singapore leg, is sure her daughter has the tenacity to reach her goals.

Recalling how a young Alia used to compare her timings with those of the boys in her swimming class, gleefully informing them when she had bettered their times, Sharon added: "That was her goal growing up - she wanted to beat the boys.

"She's beautiful in the water, but she is where she is today because of her determination to achieve her goals."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Jamaican swimmer is in the running'. Print Edition | Subscribe