Belgrade 2024: Olympic medallist Siobhan O’Connor recalls the ‘great, great memories’ of European Juniors in Belgrade

Published On: June 13, 2024

Credit to: Aquatics GB

Siobhan O’Connor won her first medals on the international stage at the European Junior Championships in Belgrade in 2011.

It was the start of an illustrious career for the Briton who five years later would make her way to the Olympic podium after finishing second in the 200m individual medley at Rio 2016.

By the time she announced her retirement in June 2021, O’Connor had an extensive collection of World, European and Commonwealth silverware, topped by that Olympic silver.

Ten years earlier, she arrived in Belgrade for her second international junior competition after competing at the 2010 edition in Helsinki.

By the end of the championships, the 15-year-old had won three golds in the 200 and 400m individual medley and 4x100m medley relay and silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay.

Following Belgrade 2011, she travelled to Shanghai for the World Championships where she made her senior international debut a fortnight later.

Credit to:  Aquatics GB

It was a whirlwind summer for O’Connor who told European Aquatics: “I have amazing memories of Belgrade: that was such a great competition.

“In Helsinki I’d had a disappointing competition, I didn’t really achieve what I wanted. I was very nervous, very inexperienced.

“The following year I (already) had that experience of going to an international competition and engaging with all the different nations.

“It’s quite daunting the first time you do it so that experience definitely helped.

“I was sharing with my best friend Phoebe Lenderyou: she is still one of my closest friends, she’s getting married next year and she’s made me one of her bridesmaids.”

There were also lessons and experiences that helped shape the young athlete and laid the foundations for what came later.

O’Connor, Lenderyou – who won bronze in the 200m backstroke – were among a group of swimmers who’d join coach Graeme Antwhistle for a walk each morning before breakfast.

It ensured they were fully prepared for the heat swims, a routine she continued throughout her career, as with the race warm-up she practiced in the Serbian capital.

Credit to: Aquatics GB

There was also a huge learning experience in the 400m individual medley, which was the first final of the opening day.

Unbeknown to the swimmers who had taken to the water, there was an issue with the timing system.

They’d gone beyond the halfway point when the officials stopped the race.

“I did the 100 fly, the 100 back and I was on the breaststroke and they stopped the race, put the flags down halfway through the pool and they said: ‘you need to start again’ after we’d already swum 225m of the race,” recalls O’Connor.

“It was very tough because then we had to stand up and do it again.

“But it made me really tough: a lot of the girls I was swimming against, it really threw them.

“I think it did throw me but I just had to kind of be really like ‘okay, it’s happened, I can’t control it, I have to just deal with it.

“I have to just get in and be ready to do this again in half an hour.

“You can’t control some things but you just can control how you react to it and how you deal with it at the time.”

O’Connor would go on to the World Championships to make her senior bow a fortnight later, where she reached the semifinals of the 200IM.

Credit to: Aquatics GB

Also in China was Molly Renshaw, 200m breaststroke bronze medallist in Belgrade and herself at the start of a fine career that encompassed European titles and Olympic finals.

O’Connor points to the bonds that were formed and the friendships made through junior competition that have endured to this day.

It was a significant time in her career.

At 14 she’d joined the senior programme at Bath National Training Centre where she was coached by Dave McNulty after the junior programme closed down, despite 18 being the age swimmers were normally admitted.

Four medals in Serbia and then on to Shanghai – Belgrade 2011 was an important stepping stone for O’Connor.

O’Connor said: “I had a big increase in my training load and swimming really became more serious for me around that age.

“After Belgrade I started to believe in myself so much more, I really felt ‘oh wow, I’ve achieved so much more than I thought I was capable of’ and I could see the rewards of the hard work I was doing in training.

“It was amazing weather: it was one of the only competitions I swam outside and I remember the top of the block being so hot, it would burn your feet.

“You’d literally stand on it at the very, very last second.

“It was very special: great, great memories.”

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