Conor Ferguson hoping it’s third time lucky in chase of his Olympic swimming dream

The 24-year-old from Belfast, who narrowly missed out on Rio and Tokyo, on his last chance to make Paris

At some recent moment in Conor Ferguson’s near continuous 10 years of staring up at the roof of swimming arenas around the world he figured this might be enough already. If it was starting to feel like too lonely an exercise, other swimmers have felt the same.

A prodigy in the 100m backstroke, the now 24-year-old from Belfast narrowly missed out on the Rio Olympics in 2016, by .05 of a second, and then for the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, he again fell less than half a second short.

Not long after that, Ferguson began to question almost everything about the sport that he’d thrived in since his early teenage years, winning a silver medal at the World Under-20 Championships in 2017, and two silver medals in the European Under-20 grade. He needed some time out, if he wasn’t entirely burnt out.

“Put it this way, I’ve been in the sport, swimming nearly every day, since I was 11 or 12 years old,” he says. “You do that for the guts of 10 years, never have a real break out of the pool, so I suppose at the time, I was thinking I don’t want to look at anything to do with swimming, apart from supporting my friends on their journeys.


“But I think it was really good to have that break, that mental break, and come back. And you see that with a lot of swimmers, having to take a break out of swimming. Whether that be for mental health and physical health, and I think it does everyone really well.”

In a frank interview with this newspaper in January, Mona McSharry, who in Tokyo became the first Irish swimmer to reach a final since Michelle Smith de Bruin in Atlanta in 1996, revealed similar love-hate sentiments, that she’d “come to the conclusion that I hated swimming, really disliked it”.

A short break from the sport worked wonders for McSharry, and now Ferguson feels that way too. He’s currently 0.16 short of the 53.74 second qualifier for Paris, and will get three chances to secure that when the five-day Irish Championships and Olympic trials begin at the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin on Wednesday morning.

He’s also in line to join the men’s 4x400m medley relay in Paris, assuming their invitation is sealed. Swim Ireland already have three individual qualifiers, in Wiffen, McSharry, and Ellen Walshe, although Ferguson is clearly on a mission of his own.

He credits his move to Loughborough University after Tokyo, where he’s studying sports management, as pivotal to restoring his love for the sport; it’s also where Wiffen has been thriving, the now double World Champion one of the gold medal favourites in the Paris 800m and 1,500m

“Being so close to Rio in 2016, I sort of just expected Tokyo to be, not an easy ride, but I expected it just to come,” says Ferguson. “It was the first time in my career that I experienced a plateau for four years.

“After Covid I thought another year would do me the world of good. I’m not saying it didn’t, but it didn’t come as easy as I expected. That was a real low point, missing out, and I felt lost around that time. That’s when the doubt creeps in.

“’Am I good enough? Am I cut out for this sport? Am I cut out for the hard mornings in winter? These are the sort of questions that run through your head when you’re at a low point in your career.

“I took three months completely out of swimming, another three months where I was sort of dipping in and out. I would do a week and then I would think ‘I’m done’ and you wouldn’t see me for another two weeks. That was probably another three months, until January [2022] time until I thought, right, I’m getting my act together here.

“At the time that’s where my head was at. It’s not where I am at now. I knew that if I was going to give this a proper crack then I needed to put myself somewhere that ticked all the boxes.”

One box left to tick now.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics