Following another thrilling day in the pool in Birmingham, we chat to our Development and Curriculum Manager, and athlete mentor Adam Whitehead about his own experiences of the Games. Twenty years on from his gold medal winning 100m breaststroke race, his experiences still play a huge role in his work and continue to inspire him to act as a mentor and role model for young people.

 Adam, what was your best sporting achievement? 

One of my career highlights was winning the European Championships when I was 18, I swum the 5th fastest time in history to achieve that so very much look back on that with fond memories. But by far and away my favourite race was winning the Commonwealth Games in front of a home crowd in Manchester when I was 22.  

The reason why it was my favourite I think was because it was at a multi-sport Games, rather than just a swimming championship and I loved it being at home in the United Kingdom. All the support in and around Manchester, in fact the atmosphere in the whole country was just really good and gave me energy for my races. It also came off the back of a tough couple of years for me performing badly at the Olympic Games in Sydney so I think it made the Commonwealth Games even sweeter. 

What was it like competing at the Commonwealth Games? 

Competing at a multi-sport Games like the Olympics or the Commonwealths is really cool. You’re staying in a Games village so you’re around athletes from other sports, unlike at a swimming championships. You’re mixing with athletes from other countries and meeting people in the dining hall, I just loved everything about it really. Manchester was my second Commonwealth Games, I won a bronze medal at my first and even though I didn’t swim well at the Olympic Games I enjoyed the overall village experience. 

Tell us a story from the Commonwealths you attended... 

For my Final at the Manchester Games there had been some kind of technical issue which meant the programme got put back about 30 minutes or so which left me with a period of dead time and that close to the race it’s easy to let your mind wander and run away with you. But I remember feeling really relaxed before the race, which isn’t something that happens that often but when you feel relaxed like that there’s this feeling that you’re going to swim well and I remember I was just looking forward to going out and swimming in front of my parents, grandparents and a loud home crowd. It was just a super positive experience all round and that you need to be ready to adapt to change and on that occasion, I managed to adapt well. 

After I won, I was in the stadium until about midnight due to taking a drug test and when I came out all the buses to the village had gone, so the organisers got me a car and I remember speaking to a couple of good friends, Tom and Simon on the phone and they were heading out into town for what sounded like a big night and they were singing ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet down the phone to me… it was great to have that support but I remember smiling as I had to head back to the village as I had heats for the 50m events the next day. It wasn’t until the end of the Games when I’d added a bronze and a silver to my tally that I could go out and let my hair down and celebrate probably my best ever week in swimming. 

How did it feel, winning your medal at the Commonwealth Games? 

I really felt a sense of pride, hearing your national anthem when you’re on the top step of the podium is an amazing feeling, but also a sense of relief. I’d had a poor couple of years including swimming badly at the Olympics and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back to my best, I didn’t know if I could get that performance out of myself again. It was a relief that all the hard work and sacrifices had paid off and it was just an amazing feeling.  

What skills would you say you need to compete at elite level? 

I’ve met lots of great sports people over the years and I believe it’s not so much skills as a great work ethic - what all great athletes have in common is they work extremely hard. There is some truth that you need to have a bit of talent but hard work trumps talent every time, but the skill is to maximise the talent you do have, commit 100% and have a positive attitude to the training you need to do and make the sacrifices necessary in order to train and compete at an elite level. 

What has been your biggest sporting challenge? 

There were injuries throughout my career including to my knees and with the discs in my back but I would say the biggest challenge for many people is how you battle back from adversity. I was diagnosed with depression while I was still swimming competitively and that for me was by far the biggest challenge to learn to accept and work with it, rather than against it. 

How does competing in elite sport relate to young people and the challenges they might face? 

I think elite sport and life in general is full of challenges that we have to overcome. Sport highlights that and many athletes obviously will lose more races than they will win and that teaches you character and teaches you how to be resilient and robust, both physically and mentally through those difficult periods. Young people can relate to the fact that in sport you don’t get given anything, we don’t give out the gold medal before the race and I think life is very much like that whether you’re preparing for an interview or a driving test, you’re not given the job or the licence without going through the proper process. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from sport around how you prepare and how resilient you can be when things don’t quite go your way. 

What sort of things do young people usually ask you when you work with them? 

How rich are you and how famous are you?! I certainly didn’t make any money out of swimming, it was an amateur sport when I started, it became lottery funded later on and despite being ranked top ten in the world for several years, I retired without a penny in the bank. I think often young people want that instant success, like they might see on X Factor and want to be famous and rich overnight, but sport isn’t like that and life definitely isn’t like that either. 

More often than not, once people get to know me nowadays, they often want to know more about the tougher times I had and about me and my mental health diagnosis. I certainly enjoy supporting people through their issues and supporting them rather than talking about my sporting successes from years ago in a swimming pool.  

What attracted you to becoming a mentor? 

I’ve always been a people person and enjoyed working with and being around other people and the opportunity to help and support other people who might not be in the best position is something that I love to do. It’s selfish in a way, because when they have success, it makes me feel good about what I did that day to support them or what you did over the course of that programme. I wanted to be able to help people who were in a less fortunate position than myself and try and make a difference to as many young people as possible.   

What is your favourite thing about being an athlete mentor? 

I enjoy being part of the team that delivers the programmes and I like working with the other athletes who are all from different sports but equally are similar in lots of ways. I like having the opportunity to meet lots of young people – I’m certainly not a young person anymore! – from all over country, from all different walks of life and to try and help them is a great opportunity and it’s definitely something I love. 

What are you looking forward to about the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this summer? 

Any opportunity for England or the UK to host a major sporting event is brilliant. When the Commonwealths came here in Manchester and in Glasgow, the atmosphere around the cities and the whole country was just incredible. I’m looking forward to a great Games, seeing some sports I haven’t watched much of before and of course I’m looking forward to the swimming especially and seeing how fast the swimmers can go, both from the home countries but also from countries like Australia, NZ and Canada – I think we’ve got a great opportunity to be the best swimming nation in the pool, so I’m really excited for it all to start!