Ollie Hynd MBE: I was really close to quitting swimming
The golds, the glory, the honours – Paralympic swimming champion Ollie Hynd has done it all. But it took a ‘light bulb’ moment whilst watching older brother Sam race in Beijing in 2008 to set him on the path to success.
“Sam also used to compete and he went to the Beijing Games. My parents took me to China to support him,” says the 25-year-old. “At the time I was quite reluctant and didn’t really want to go as I wasn’t very interested.
“But as soon as I got there, I was really inspired by the whole thing. I’d seen how much work that Sam had put into his swimming and his dedication. That inspired me to try and make London 2012. That was the first moment where I thought ‘I want to give this a real good go’.”
It wasn’t going to be easy, though. The swimming star was dealt a tough start to life. Just like his brother, he was diagnosed with neuromuscular myopathy at the age of 12; a condition that affects his whole body.
Hynd explains: “It’s more distally than proximally, so my hands are worse than my shoulders and my feet and knees are a little bit worse than my hips.
“With day-to-day stuff, walking is the big one. There’s a struggle with the stairs, writing and opening things. Little things like that affect my day-to-day life. Obviously, that translates into the pool and my impairments in the pool as well.”
Hynd first entered the swimming pool as a youngster when his parents encouraged him to be more water-safe – and it wasn’t long before he picked up a passion for the sport. He joined Sutton Swimming Club aged eight, then moved to the Nova Venturian Swimming Squad after that trip to Beijing made him start to believe that a bright future in the sport was possible.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hynd’s hard work and dedication paid off. Not only did he qualify for the 2012 Paralympics in London, he took a gold medal home in the 200m individual medley as well – an experience that he will never forget.
“London 2012 as a whole experience was absolutely incredible. For any athlete wanting to compete at the highest level, competing at a home games is amazing.” says the Mansfield-born athlete.
“For me to not only be able to compete but to win a gold was an absolute dream. The only regret I have from London 2012 is that, because I was so young at 17, I didn’t really appreciate exactly what it was or the magnitude of what I was taking part in.
“For instance, I didn’t really take any photos at all whilst I was there which is kind of crazy. But it was a great experience and something that I will never forget and feel very really lucky to have been a part of.”
After being awarded an MBE for services to swimming a year later – an experience he describes “crazy” – Hynd turned his focus to bettering his achievements in London at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.
“As much as London was great, the four years from London to Rio was really special. The training group that we had and all the competitions we had in between, it was just a really special time in my life and career.
“It was tipped off with Rio 2016 as the pinnacle of four years and even longer of really hard and very obsessive work for that one, sole goal.
“What made it more special was the negative stuff [about Brazil’s preparations] going into the games. We didn’t really know how it was going to go or what it was going to be like. But we got there and the village was fantastic, the people were great, the venue was great, food was great, transport was great.”
Hynd took gold in his opening event, the 400m freestyle, smashing the world record in the final. He then repeated the feat in his closing competition, winning and setting a new world record in the 200m individual medley.
He was riding on the crest of a wave. Everything that he touched was literally turning to gold. But he was soon dealt a blow out of the blue that left the triple gold medalist questioning his future in the sport.
In March 2018, the swimming star received news that as part of new IPC rules, he would be moved from the S8 classification that he’d competed in for his whole career, up to the S9 category. It was a major blow.
“It was pretty devastating,” says Hynd. “It was just a really difficult time and I didn’t really understand it or have the answers for it.
“You’re swimming against people with less of an impairment, I guess. If you were comparing it to fighting, it would be like moving up a weight class.
“It was really difficult because I’d been obsessed with my craft, and everything has got to be focused around it, so when that all happened, my identity was so wrapped up in me as a swimmer. But when that rug was pulled from beneath me, everything went.”
Hynd admits that the experience took its toll on his mental health, too: “It was really challenging and I’m not ashamed to admit it led to some mental health issues as well. It was a challenging year.”
Fellow para-athletes Matt Wylie, Jonathan Fox and Josef Craig retired from their respective sports after also having their classifications controversially changed but Hynd, after much consideration, decided to stick with it.
He says: “I came really, really close [to retiring]. What made it more complicated is that we appealed the decision and that dragged on for a few months afterwards. Until the final decision was made, it was ongoing. But in the summer of 2018, I was really close to calling it a day and saying ‘that’s it, I’m done with the sport’. Really, really close.
“But I didn’t make that decision and a year down the line, I’m happy that I continued. It’s just given me a bit more perspective I think – not just in swimming, but in life in general. There’s so much more to the sport and to life than just the gold medals”
Hynd’s focus is now firmly on qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics, with the all-important trials taking place in April. Despite fears that the coronavirus outbreak might delay or even lead to the cancellation of the Games, the three-time champion only has one thing on his mind.
“You’ve just got to trust the powers that be to make the right decision [about the Games going ahead]. The health and well-being of athletes is the most important thing, so I’m sure that they’ll make the right decision.
“I’m just giving 100% in my training and focusing on Tokyo. I’ve also already been selected for the European Championships in May. So, again, that’s just the focus again in my training, making sure I’m ready for those as well.”
Beyond that, Hynd is still undecided about what his future entails. He’s dipped his toe in the water of motivational speaking but maintains that, in an ideal world, he’d still like to remain in swimming in some capacity.
“I still think I’ll be involved in the sport in some regard whatever happens,” he says.
“I’m just passing on that message and hopefully inspiring people to make positive changes in their life. Whether that be in sport or anything else, it’s something that I’m really passionate about so that’s definitely that’s going to be in my future.”