Alice Tai knows there is no event that can fully prepare her for the Tokyo Paralympics but winning five individual world titles is certainly not a bad place for the 20-year-old to start, writes Nicola Kenton.
In September, Tai was the most decorated athlete at the World Para Swimming Championships with two relay gold medals taking her gold medal tally at the London Aquatics Centre to seven.
She may only be 20 years old, but Tai has already accumulated more accolades than most athletes do over their entire career.
Rio was the first Paralympic Games for the swimmer where she claimed bronze in the S10 100m backstroke and was part of the gold-winning world-record breaking 4x100m relay team and now, barely into her twenties, she already boasts Paralympic, Commonwealth, World and European titles.
Since then the Brit, who was born with club foot, has had her classification changed to S8 and admitted finishing a phenomenal 2019 with incredible World Championship success was a feeling beyond special.
“The season has been a pretty successful one for me,” said Tai.
“At one of those competitions, I broke seven world records over four days which for me was a really nice moment because I was putting my foot down before worlds and setting a marker for everyone.
“With my eight races at worlds, I ended coming away with five individual medals, two relay medals and a fourth place. Coming away with gold from pretty much every event I swam was special.”
The neuroscience student, who studies at Middlesex University, added two new events to her programme this year with the 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley.
Incorporating the longer freestyle event came through a stroke of luck after a chance meeting in Italy when she was training on holiday with Simone Barlaam and another coach spotted her potential in the event.
Tai was voted September’s Allianz Athlete of the Month following her exploits in the pool, and despite her numerous accolades, she believes there is still progress to be made with Tokyo on the horizon.
“We weren’t expected to win the 400m freestyle, I thought we’d maybe get a silver or a bronze,” Tai explained.
“I didn’t medal in the 200m individual medley at worlds, but I dropped a load of time off from what I’d swam in previous years, so I know there’s more progression there.
“It will be interesting to race the medley at Europeans next year and from there deciding whether or not I’m going to be swimming it in Tokyo.
“I’ve developed a lot in the pool but also outside, as an athlete and a person. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how best to train, what works for me and I’m really excited to take that forward into Tokyo.”
Tai made the move to Ealing swimming club after struggling to adapt to life post the pressures of Rio and is now coached by Dave Heathcock – an individual she credits for helping her rediscover her love for the sport.
“I’m really pleased with how this season has gone, I moved to Ealing Swimming Club at the start and it was a whole new programme, new people and new coach,” Tai added.
“It was probably one of the best moves I’ve ever done and I’m so happy there, I couldn’t be happier.
“Dave is awesome, he’s really changed how I think and feel about swimming this year and I can’t thank him enough.
“He’s really good at seeing swimming as one part of the bigger picture rather than just everything swimming because it’s just one aspect of my life and me.”