PLYMOUTH Leander’s Laura Stephens is hoping her selection for this summer’s World Championships is just a stepping stone on the way to fulfilling her dream of competing at the 2020 Olympics.
Stephens booked her spot in Great Britain’s 25-strong squad for Gwangju by impressing at the British Championships in Glasgow.
The Plymouth University student, who turns 20 next month, smashed her personal best for the 200m butterfly by more than a second and pushed Commonwealth Games champion Alys Thomas all the way.
Stephens is thrilled with her World Championship call-up and says it has given her a massive boost with the Tokyo Olympic Games just 14 months away.
“I am really happy but I am continuously thinking long-term and my goal is to get on the team for the 2020 Olympics,” said Stephens. “This is another step forward towards that.”
The former Plymouth College pupil admitted she could not have asked for a better British Championships, returning with two medals and personal bests.
“The British Championships just went to plan from start to finish and I think that goes for the entire PL (Plymouth Leander) team,” she said. “We had a really strong meet from the junior athletes right the way through to the seniors. Everyone was getting PBs and supporting and motivating each other. We had a really nice environment up in Glasgow.
“I was really, really happy with my 200m fly swim. To get the PB I needed in the final was so satisfying – seeing all that hard work paying off.
“But it was almost bittersweet as I just missed out on the qualification standard for the World Championship team by 0.07 of second. However, I was still over the moon with the time and getting the silver medal and been so close to Alys Thomas, who is the Commonwealth champion and an athlete I really look up to.”
Although she just missed out on the incredibly tough British World Championships qualification time, which was two seconds faster than FINA’s qualifying mark, she was selected as one British national performance director Chris Spice’s eight ‘wild card’ picks.
She was the best performing British swimming who did not make the consideration time and her time ranked her in the world’s top eight, but Stephens said it was still a nervous wait to see if she would be on the plane to South Korea.
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, just in case,” she said. “So I just thought let’s wait and see, but I was hoping and had my fingers crossed. When I got the email I was over the moon.”
Stephens went to Glasgow having never gone under 2:09 minutes for the 200m butterfly in a long course competition, but she ended up swimming 2:07.96.
“Training has been going really well this season,” said Stephens. “We had a really strong 18 (week) block from Christmas and before Christmas I went to the Winter National Meet and did a big short course PB of 2:04 for the 200 fly there so I hoped I did have something special coming into the long course season.
“I had a couple of meets in January and February where I swam 2:09 so I knew I was looking in quite good shape. Taper went really well and I just managed to execute everything on the day.
“I was really happy when I touched the wall and saw the 2:07. Hopefully, I can look on improving that now leading into the Worlds.
“I just want to get my head back down and get on with the hard work. Hopefully, I will keep seeing the progress.”
Stephens was a top junior swimmer. She won a medal at the 2015 European Games in Baku, claimed three more medals at the 2016 European Junior Championship and represent Great Britain at the European Senior Championships that year while still at school.
But she admitted she did find it tough making the jump from juniors to the seniors.
“I did struggle when I was 16-17,” she said. “I had a period where I wasn’t getting PBs and it was difficult, but I feel I am back on track and where I want to be. I’m really happy with the results and hopefully I am beginning to make a mark in my senior career now.”
Stephens, who was part of England’s team at last year’s Commonwealth Games, competes in an event where swimmers do tend to peak later.
“When you look at some of the other women I am going to be racing at the World Champs you have the Olympic champion, Maria Belmonte, who is about 29, and Alys Thomas is also around 29, so there is a 10-year age gap nearly between us,” she said.
“But I don’t want age to limit me. I think it will just come down to who is the hungriest and who has trained the hardest.”
Stephens combines her training with doing a degree in architectural engineering at the University of Plymouth.
“They (the university) are really supportive,” said Stephens. “My lecturers all know about my busy schedule and so there is no pressure if I can make a lecture.
“It is working for me and if all I was doing was thinking about swimming then I know I would probably go crazy. It is nice to have a distraction.
“And that’s what’s nice about having this (Leander) team around is that you know you can all just hang out away from the pool.”