As the National Swimming Championships take place at Ponds Forge International Sports Centre, Sheffield (5-10 April 2022), we chatted to local home-grown talent, James Kirton, former GB Olympic and world champion swimmer, about his elite sporting background, and how this applies to his current role as athlete mentor for Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.

What’s your greatest sporting achievement?

Hands down, competing in 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing

What makes the Olympics so special?

In my sport of swimming, competing at the Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport. Something like 0.02% of people get to compete for their country at the Olympic Games and to be part of that small percentage is pretty amazing. All the athletes from all the countries are there and mixing with other famous athletes was incredible, I remember bumping into Roger Federer… the sheer scale and magnitude of the event was also something that made it so special.

What would you say are the skills you need to succeed at the highest level of elite sport?

To be able to compete at an elite level, you need to live and train at an elite level.

Belief. Someone told me when I was a teenager, “Just because you’re not an Olympian, it doesn’t mean you can’t train like an Olympian” and from that moment on I decided to live like an Olympian. I had a positive mindset, I trained and lived well.

One secret to being successful is consistency, turning up EVERY DAY and giving it your best. On days when you can’t be bothered, it’s having that ability to still go and train and give it your absolute best.

Resilience to learn and lose. Ability to push yourself further. My success came from the ability I had to push myself further than some of my competitors.

What was your biggest challenge during your sporting career?

My biggest challenge would have been battling injuries. As a youngster I was in a great programme with great coaches but didn’t have the knowledge about my body that I wish I had. I was training harder than my body was ready for. I was training for 30 odd hours a week and my body didn’t have the stability or resilience to hold itself together. My biggest injury came in 2007 when I had three operations before and after the Olympics. It was like I’d trained all my life for something and then to have it taken out of your hands and you have those feelings that it’s unfair and that you don’t deserve this… but all you can do is remember that you have worked hard for this over a long period of time and giving up now is not an option!

Being able to lean on other people is difficult but I found it so important at this point when I was really struggling with these injuries. If I hadn’t accepted help from doctors, physios, friends, family… I know I wouldn’t have been able to compete at the Olympics.

How does competing at an elite level relate to the issues you see young people tackling today?

I never put myself on a pedestal or think that what I’d done was amazing, but when you look back, it was pretty good!

The question I mainly get asked is ‘How did you get there?’ They assume you were pushed by parents, or always knew you were going to be good, or you have an affluent background, so it was easier. When you tell them you were a council estate lad from Barnsley who at ten years old decided he wanted to be good at something… it gives them a bit of a shock! They always ask how I stuck at it and I just tell them I always wanted it more than the next person. I think sometimes the young people are a bit disappointed with my answer as there isn’t a secret really about being successful, it’s down to hard work and consistency and surrounding yourself with the right people.

Every single successful person I know shares the same morals, characteristics and ethics as me. They’re all hardworking, willing to go the extra mile and resilient.

What attracted you to becoming a mentor?

I think I realized that I’d been a mentor throughout my sporting career already. I was always that person supporting other people and driving them on. Always someone others could come to me and be a positive influence. And when I started coaching, I realized that I got a real kick out of helping people… one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing is to ‘Give’ and I just love and enjoy giving someone time and snippets of knowledge.

I realized at back end of my career that the real world is a very different place to the swimming bubble but the same things that made me great at swimming are the same things that can make anybody great at what they do. All they have to do is put the same characteristics into whatever it is that they want to be. Surround yourself by successful people – and I don’t mean success as in rich or famous – and practice the key characteristics I’ve mentioned consistency, reliability, hardworking.

I just wanted to go out and spread the word that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you’re supported by, how much money you’ve got, what area you grew up in, what house you live in, what your parents or guardians did, if you want something bad enough, I’m living proof that you can go out there and get it. There’s no better feeling than when you see the penny drop with a young person and when you see them realise, ‘well if he can do it, there’s no reason why I can’t do it.’

What’s your favourite thing about being a mentor?

That moment I mention above when someone realizes they can do this. Those moments when you’re able to support someone who really needs it. It can be tough when you’re surrounded by people who are finding life difficult and you look at them and you think you just want to help and you can’t do it in that moment. In this role you don’t always see the ‘hurrah’ moment or where their life changes but we know we’re planting those seeds or it’s just sometimes seeing that twinkle in their eye and that understanding that ‘they get this’ – that’s the best part of the job.

Why is it so great to have the National Swimming Championships in Sheffield?

It's class having the National Swimming Championships in Sheffield! I’d put Ponds Forge in my top five pools in the world and I’ve swum in A LOT of swimming pools all over the world throughout my career. I’ve spent so many years there, I call it the mothership! I know Team Steel – my old swimming club – will benefit from the championships being at their home pool, just having the home crowd there will help.

I remember I qualified for the Olympics in Sheffield and just before I was about to race I looked up into the crowd I could see friends, family, physios I’d worked with – it made it pretty special. The city in itself is making some real strides forward in bringing sports forward – Ponds Forge is bringing events in still, the Sheffield Eagles have just built a new stand. Sport can change lives, sport can inspire and sport can do so many things so to get as many sporting activities back in Sheffield is an amazing thing for inspiring young people.

If you are a young person reading this and you have no interest in swimming, get yourself down and watch it as you’ll see some amazing athletes there, all striving to be the absolute best they can and that could be you in your field! Any schools that have the opportunity to go and watch it, or go to the Eagles, or to watch football should do it. Sport changed my life and enabled a council estate kid from Barnsley to travel the world.

Our programmes are focused on physical and mental wellbeing. How do you look after your mental health?

I try to roll the Five Ways to Wellbeing into as much of my life as possible! I also try to spend time reflecting on my mental health and keeping in mind it’s always on a sliding scale, that can be affected positively and negatively depending on situations. I guess the secret is recognizing what your current mental health is and knowing the things you need to do to maintain it. For me it was getting a dog two years ago, it’s given me a chance to walk him and spend time thinking / relaxing whilst keeping active – it’s worked wonders!