Talented island swimmer Gemma Atherley has been named in Jersey’s Commonwealth Games team for next years games in Birmingham.
Dan Andrade caught up with Atherley and spoke about her journey in the pool, from where she started to her Island Games successes. We also touched upon how it grew Gemma as a person through the years.
The full interview is below!
Do you remember when you first started swimming?
I learnt to swim at Le Mourier swim school when I was a few years old, although I don’t have many clear memories of that anymore. I think my strongest first memories of swimming are my first times racing in Guernsey and the UK as part of Tigers when I was around 9 years old.
How important have Tigers as a club been for your development?
Without Tigers I wouldn’t be swimming today. They’ve been an important part of my journey and I’ve made so many memories and friends at the club. Since moving to the senior squads at about age 11 or 12, Nathan Jegou has supported everything I’ve done, even if I was infuriating at times.
When did you know you wanted to specialize in backstroke?
I think it was probably pretty clear to the coaches that I wasn’t going to be a breaststroke swimmer very early on. I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision to focus on one stroke over another, it sort of happens naturally as a kid when you are training and racing, and you figure out which strokes and distances suit you the best.
You have spent some years in Washington – how was that for you?
Looking back at my college career it was the right move for me at the time. I’d lived in Jersey my whole life and suddenly moving to a major capital city was interesting. Getting used the different culture, food and way of life was pretty difficult for me at the start but I’m glad I made the move. I learnt a lot about myself in my time in DC and made lifelong friends even though I’m now on the other side of the planet to them. I don’t know if I would have qualified for Commonwealth Games in 2018 without that experience.
Would you recommend others to make the step over to America to develop in their sports?
The college sports system in the US is incredible, there are opportunities to compete at every level of your sport and the training facilities to match. It brings together so many talented athletes and creates a really good training environment for the teams. Your university life is set up to help you succeed at both your sport and academic studies. I learnt a lot about myself in the four years I was there, and I think it really helped me to overcome challenges and develop as an athlete and a person.
If you are looking to compete at a high level, then it’s definitely a good place to be. If I was to recommend it to others, I would say find a university that suits your needs as they are all slightly different and what works for one person might not work for someone else.
How hard was the pandemic, spending it off island in Birmingham?
I started the pandemic in the US not really too sure if I was going to continue swimming after all of my meets for the rest of the year got cancelled and all of my friends went home. Like a lot of people, I was hoping it was going to be three weeks lockdown and then back to “normal” which still hasn’t happened. I spent a lot of time over those first three months not really sure what I was going to do with my life. The person closest to me at the time told me that swimming was stupid and it was pointless for me to keep trying after my college career was over. In hindsight I’m forever grateful that I didn’t let myself be convinced by that and when pools opened here in Jersey, I was able to get back to training.
There really weren’t many job opportunities about at the beginning of the pandemic and a lot of people I knew had their OPT visas and jobs cancelled. In a sort of last-minute decision, I applied
for a master’s at the University of Birmingham, and it turned out to be a really good choice. The swimming club there were really supportive and welcoming, as well as having a great sports facility on campus. I think the hardest part for me was being forced to make a lot of permanent decisions about my future very quickly and moving to a new city where I knew no one in the middle of a pandemic.
You hold all island records for backstroke – how proud are you of that?
It’s really great to have my name in the record books and to hopefully be there for a few more years.
You broke the 200 fly island record recently which had stood since 1989 – how proud are you of that achievement and how long have you been aiming for that record?
I wasn’t really aiming to break that record at all, I don’t usually swim butterfly. At club champs I decided I was going to race two events that I haven’t swam for 5+ years. I’m not sure if this season will be one of my last, so I thought it would be fun to good to race those events again to see how well I would do. Luckily there’s a lot of elements of training backstroke, like the underwaters that also help with butterfly. But yes, it’s a proud moment to have my name on a variety of records and especially to have one that had stood for so long.
You’ve succeeded at the island games over the years too! Tell us about the medals you’ve won, and which made you most proud?
I competed at my first Island Games in Bermuda 2013, and I think it was probably there that I first believed that I might actually be good at swimming, although I don’t think I had ever intended to take it this far. I’d never been the best swimmer before that, I didn’t win a lot of medals or set club records as a junior swimmer. In 2013, I was lucky enough to be a part of a really strong team and won three relay medals including a gold and a Games record which I think still stands. At the 2015 home games, I won two individual silvers and relay gold and bronze. In Gotland 2017, I won two golds and four silvers. And in 2019, I won one gold, four silvers and a bronze. It’s hard to say which has made me most proud, but I would probably say I’m most proud of myself for the Jersey Island Games in 2015.
This will be your second commonwealth games – at the first you were the first woman to be named in the swimming team since 2002. How was that, and how was the experience?
There were lots of amazing girls swimming when I was younger who won golds at island games, set island records, and even represented GB internationally. Sometimes events don’t align, and I think that happened for a lot of successful female swimmers over the past 20 years.
Sometimes it’s difficult as a woman to be a part of male dominated spaces and succeed in your own right. Across the board sports need to be more inclusive and encouraging to keep young girls participating in sports. For me, swimming built my confidence from a shy kid who didn’t speak to anyone on poolside to the person I am today.
Competing in the Gold Coast solidified all of the sacrifices I’d ever made for the sport and was more than I could ever have asked for as an experience. I will never forget the three weeks we spent in Australia and hopefully Birmingham will be even better.
What are your goals for the upcoming games – how excited are you to be a part of it?
Being a part of an (almost) home games is always going to be exciting, even though we don’t get to meet kangaroos and koalas this time! I think it’s going to be even more exciting as it’s one of the first major multi-sport events after Covid restrictions have eased and especially since my family can watch me compete.
As a goal for the games, it would be incredible to make a semi-final, but you can’t really ask for more than swimming best times.