Gold medal-winning swimmer Karen Pickering loves splashing around with twin daughters
- Credit: karen pickering
For years, Karen Pickering was known around Ipswich simply as ‘Swimmer’, and you can understand why, writes Sheena Grant after talking to the new mum of twin girls, Evie and Mia.
She competed in four consecutive Olympics and is still regarded as Britain’s most decorated swimmer.
During a 20-year international career she won 35 major championship medals and 38 national titles, was four times World Champion, won 14 European Championship medals and 13 Commonwealth Games medals, including four gold.
To be honest, she says, ‘Swimmer’ is how she thought of herself too.
But these days, 10 years after retiring from competition, she’s got a new title. And it’s one she’s relishing more than she ever thought possible.
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Just over six months ago, at the age of 42, Karen became mum to beautiful twin girls, Evie and Mia.
She’d waited a long time to be a parent, so long that at times she wondered if it would happen at all. But in truth she has no regrets about the timing.
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“I am so grateful I waited until I did,” she says. “I’m much more patient than I thought I would be, more relaxed and calm with them. I just think I am a better mother than I would have been in my 20s or 30s. There are so many things I can look at and be a bit more objective about because of my age.”
And even though we’re talking down a phone line (Karen now lives in West Sussex with partner Adam and their daughters), it’s not hard to tell she can’t keep the smile from her face. “I still can’t quite believe I’ve got identical twin girls,” she says. “It’s absolutely amazing and I’m just really appreciative every day. I suppose I thought I would be lucky to have one child so when I had a scan and the sonographer said: ‘There’s a heart beat.... and there’s another’, I couldn’t have been happier.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. The first few months, when both girls had colic, were tough.
“I did a lot of driving around Grinstead, where I live now, with the girls in the back of the car, trying to keep them calm,” she says. “I was grateful for the local drive through, where I would stop, and generally found that if they didn’t start crying there, I could drive home and they wouldn’t wake up.” There were other issues too. Before falling pregnant with the twins, Karen suffered a miscarriage, an event that was not only heartbreaking but added to her fears that she might never become a mum.
“There were medical reasons why it might have been more complicated for me to have children,” she says. “Because of that I wouldn’t have been able to go down the IVF route even if I had wanted to.
“I knew the only way I would get pregnant was naturally and because of my age and the medical complications, I thought that would be tough.
“The miscarriage was quite early on but the whole thing was harrowing. I ended up having emergency surgery and I remember the surgeon coming in the next day and being so matter-of-fact about it, saying it was a common occurrence and wouldn’t even be looked into until you’d had three miscarriages. That matter-of-fact brutality actually made it better.
“And when I was pregnant with the girls my age was never an issue. But I did find it stressful after what had happened before. I was very sick. But every morning when I woke up and felt sick I was so grateful. I knew it was OK, I was still pregnant.”
A low-lying placenta meant there was no chance of a natural birth and a date was set for a Caesarean delivery. “I wasn’t allowed to exercise - not even swimming,” says Karen. “It just felt like every day I was trying to keep these two little babies safe. It was a lot of pressure and the day before the Caesarean, when I knew I had done it, I burst into tears.
They weighed 4lb 9oz and 5lb 4oz. Evie, the biggest, had to go into special care for one night and Mia couldn’t breast feed but with patience, she eventually learned. I’m still feeding them myself now.”
As a sportswoman, you might think Karen would have found the body changes pregnancy causes difficult to cope with. But it seems she’d already been through those issues when she stopped competing.
“When I retired my body changed enormously,” she says. “It was quite difficult to deal with that. I’ve always been a muscly, strong woman and I liked that. To not be as ripped as I was was quite tough. Getting pregnant, I had it in my mind that I was going to swim right up until the birth. But obviously, that didn’t go to plan. During the Caesarean there was quite a deep muscle torn, so it was a bit longer than I anticipated before I could exercise again. It was great to get back into the pool. With my face in the water I’m in my own world. It’s such a sanctuary for me. Feeling that peace was amazing.”
She’s still no-where near as fit as she’d like to be. “I’m not beating myself up about it,” she says. “I want to look fit and healthy, but not at the expense of looking after the girls.”
Since retiring she’s done a mix of things, including motivational and after-dinner speaking, TV and radio commentating, founded her own swim schools and designed bespoke fitness programmes (she recently did one for singer Laura Wright’s Great East Swim preparations). She’s also chair of the British Athletes Commission. But not surprisingly, in the last few months work has taken a back seat.
“I’m just starting doing speaking again and writing the fitness programmes,” she says. “I should be back doing commentary next year at the Rio Olympics. It’s important for me that I am a good role model for the girls. That means working as well as being successful. I am never going to be the best cook and creative and arty as a mum so I need to do something else.”
Would she like her daughters to follow in her sporting footsteps? “There is a part of me that thinks, wouldn’t it be amazing,” she says. “It’s important they learn to swim but how they progress, who knows?”
Karen’s long swimming career is testament to how things have changed for modern athletes. “We were the first generation where there was sponsorship and funding and you could actually be a full time swimmer,” she says. “When I first started it was quite normal for swimmers to retire in their teens or twenties because they had to get a job.”
Karen left her native Brighton and moved to Ipswich to swim when she was just 17. Although she no longer lives locally she’s still a regular visitor to Suffolk and an Ipswich Town fan.
“I’ve got a very sporty family,” she says. “It was really important that my sister and I could swim, although I nearly drowned in a swimming lesson when I was five. I was rescued by a lifeguard from the bottom of the pool. My mum taught us to swim herself after that. I certainly wasn’t the most naturally talented swimmer but I was a worker and I loved being in the water. It’s where I feel the happiest. I had to work hard to achieve what I did. Training was brutal. You can’t get away from the pain of swimming but things have changed now. It is sensible and targeted.”
It’s not hard to see why Karen must make an inspirational speaker. She’s so down to earth that having a conversation with her is like chatting with an old friend. Combine that with her life experiences and you’ve got a winning combination.
In 1996, two years after being awarded the MBE for services to swimming, Karen broke her back in a car accident. After a long recovery she resumed her career, winning two golds and a silver medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
“While others might have retired I thought, ‘what else would I be doing?’,” she says.
In 2005 though, the time was right to go. Did she think about having children then?
“I wasn’t ready,” she says. “I wanted some time to myself and it wasn’t just me: it was my partner as well. I trekked the Great Wall of China, climbed Kilimanjaro, ran a marathon, but nothing gave me the same feeling as touching the wall first. I realised nothing is going to feel the same but I could get little bits from lots of places.”
The next chapter of her life is looking good too. Karen would be the first to admit she can’t simply be called ‘Swimmer’ any more. “I look back at my swimming career and feel proud and content,” she says. “I also feel proud of what I’ve done since, helping other athletes. Now, when I walk around with my little girls I feel completely proud to be a mum.”