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Interview: Jack Burnell

With FINA World Cup wins in Mexico and Hungary, third overall in the 2015 World Cup series and Rio 2016 qualification at the World Championships, 2015 was an amazing year for Jack Burnell. We caught up with him to chat about tactics for Rio and his plans for the future.

How would you sum up last year?

Really good to be honest: six races this year all in the top six. It has been a lot of hard work and the consistency is starting to come now. For me, my best performance was in the World Championships, securing qualification for Rio.

What did you do differently to make 2015 so successful?

We did a lot more open water specific training. Sets were based around the physical changes you go through in an open water race. The change in pace really affects how you feel at the end of a race – depending on how many times people decide to push the pace, can you live with that? We really tried to replicate that in training, which obviously showed at Kozumel and Hungary when it was the case of pulling away from everybody in the last 800m. It really made the difference.

You qualified for Rio at Kazan but didn’t medal in the Championships. How did that feel?

Very frustrating. We went into that race 100% expecting at least a medal if not to win it. Some things didn’t go as expected on the day. We didn’t expect Jordan [Wilimovsky] to go off so quickly with 2km to go. To be honest it was also the case of a little bit of a lack of fitness, but these are all minor excuses. I don’t want to put any excuses out there. We got the qualification and the big one is Rio, so that is where we have to really get the result. 

What are your tactics for Rio and 2016?

Just to go in there as well prepared as possible. The issue we had with the World Championships was a bit of a lack of fitness, but all the tactics were fairly spot on. I want to get in the best physical condition I can for Rio so I can respond to anything that gets thrown at me.

Will you be doing lots of racing prior to the Olympics?

A reasonable amount – six races between now and Rio to make sure we are still race hardened but don’t show too much of our hand. It is a very tactical sport and you don’t want to show everybody what you want to do and how you want to head the race.

Do you now feel under pressure to succeed at Rio?

The expectations that other people put on me don’t affect me because my expectations are greater than theirs. I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Anything other than a gold medal in Rio would be a disappointment. I feel that is without a doubt achievable.

The added pressure for me is the fact that if we can come away with that Olympic gold medal it will raise the profile of open water swimming even more in the UK and really get more people involved in the sport.

What is your view on the current state and standard of open water swimming in the UK?

One massive plus we have in the UK is that the mass participation side is seriously starting to take off. At the elite level it is only going to go from strength to strength – we have a really good shot of doing some serious damage in Rio. We also have some good youngsters coming through who could have a serious impact on the sport in the coming years.

You also run Novus, manufacturing and supplying sports kit to clubs. How important is it for athletes to have something to fall back on?

Massively. You find athletes who all they know is the sport and I find that quite saddening really. What we do isn’t going to last for ever. It has a very short lifespan and I think unless you have something else you really enjoy and want to fall back on it is actually quite hard for swimmers to leave the sport as they don’t know what they want to do afterwards. But for myself that is completely different as I know exactly what I want to do when I leave the sport. For me, sport is a platform to get me there. I think it is massively important and it doesn’t have to be business – it could be a hobby or education or anything like that. People need a distraction as it is a very intense environment. You need a release.

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.