How age and motherhood is no obstacle to Olympic ambition

Elite Team
Written by: Elizabeth Byrnes at 4 February '14 0
You are reading: How age and motherhood is no obstacle to Olympic ambition

Three-time Olympic medallist Therese Alshammar has devoted 30 years to swimming but 2013 brought a life-changing event when she gave birth to baby Fred.

Now aged 36, Therese has returned to the water with the long-term goal of competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when she will be a fortnight shy of her 39th birthday.

The Swede gained 20 kilos during pregnancy and stayed away from exercise for three months following Fred’s arrival at the end of May before making her way back to training under coach and partner Johan Wallberg.

Here Therese describes how she has come back after pregnancy and the practicalities of training with a baby.

She also gives an insight into how she keeps training stimulating, her diet, how she prevents damage to hair and skin and the women who have inspired her.


A self-confessed “tall skinny child”, Therese has arrowed her way to Olympic, World and European medals in her 21-year career.

Long and lean, Therese had to work on gaining muscle at the start of her international days as she developed her sprinter’s body.

However, that changed when she gained 20 kilos during pregnancy before Fred arrived eight months ago.

Now Therese is back in heavy training under Johan – himself a double Olympian – with the 2016 Olympics in Rio her long-term goal.

Should she qualify for the Games Therese will be 38 years old when she competes in Brazil, with her 39th birthday coming less than two weeks after the end of the pool programme.

This year marks the Swede’s 21st as a senior international swimmer and her aim in 2014 is to be selected for the European Championships in Berlin in August.

The 36-year-old won five medals – including two golds – at the last version in Budapest in 2010, 13 years after she first made a trip to a European podium in Seville.

Does she have to work harder at maintaining her fitness and her long, lean sprinter’s body now?

She says: “Not necessarily more time but you have to use more imagination, you have to be more creative in how you keep your body at peak performance.

“One of my beliefs is that you have to change something each season to keep it at its optimum peak powers.

“Both mentally to keep you sharp and interested in exercise in general and also… if you do the same things over and over you won’t be as explosive or as interested in doing those things perfectly with the right choreography and trying to get things at a perfect movement.

“I think that is one of the keys to my long career.

“You can’t change too many things in swimming, you just have to get faster and try to get to one side quicker than before and you always try to perfect the strokes.”

Instead, Therese and Johan have added yoga and pilates in the past with Redcords, which sees the user suspended in slings, introduced since her return to training three months after Fred’s birth.

Motherhood and training

Therese during a training sessionDuring pregnancy Therese continued to swim and use the gym until four days before his early arrival as the couple moved home and neither did she get too concerned about her weight gain.

She then stayed away from exercise until three months after the birth, instead adapting to the transformation in her life.

Patience was key. Therese says: “I’ve had a long swimming career and that takes a lot of patience and training is a lot of patience all the time, you have to work and have patience with things getting into place.

“But having a child you have to have patience with your body to go back into shape and I don’t think you can train hard…the first six months I think time just made me better and better.

“I trained since he was three months but it was not until after six months did I feel I had my strength back. I think that is just your body healing and getting back to where it was.”

Fred has now settled down into a routine which means his parents have been able to return to their own structure.

They go to the pool between 8-10 in the morning, returning home to eat and rest before a visit to the gym and another swimming session in the afternoon.

For three of those days the gym session involves free weights and power building and on the other three days they will do pilates or Redcords.

All the while Fred is on poolside or in the gym which Therese believes benefits both mother and child.

“So far he is happy and I am a much more calm, happier mother being so close to him all the time,” she says.


Such a close family image is reminiscent of  Therese’s own childhood when she was introduced to the sport by her mother Britt-Marie Smedh, a 100m breaststroke finalist in the 1972 Olympics.

Britt-Marie has played a huge part in her daughter’s career and Therese explains: “She taught me how to swim and was my first coach when I was five or six.

“With swimming you start early and you have morning practice so family is very important – that they engage in your sport and give you support.

“Not just encouragement but actual physical support, they need to drive you to practice in the morning, my mother has been a very big influence.

“That has been a very important factor – that you have trust and support from family.”

Diet and beauty

While diet is of course important to Therese, she does not deny herself so making it sustainable.

Instead, she has a rule that “anything goes” in the hours before and after exercising and while carbohydrates and fruit feature heavily, so does dark chocolate.

An especially demanding week will have one night of indulgence in sugary things which she normally avoids for general well-being.

So many years in the water could have wreaked havoc on Therese’s skin and hair but rather than lotions she uses oils, specifically Argan oil on her hair.


Therese Alshammar with the arena swimsuitShortly after Fred’s first birthday, Therese intends to return to racing and hopes to post a time in July which will see her make the team for Berlin in the 50m butterfly and freestyle as well as possibly the 4x100m freestyle relay.

Then comes the long-term aim of Rio where she would follow in the footsteps of American Dara Torres, who was a 41-year-old mother-of-one when she won 50m freestyle silver in Beijing in 2008.

Does she take inspiration from Torres? “I do.

“Not just for my own sport but for women everywhere – for the longevity of sports in general. I think it is wonderful to show the way it is possible.

“Dara is a wonderful person as well and is an inspiration that someone can achieve their dreams no matter your age or what you have done before does not really matter.

“To come back and she was faster than she had ever been in her life that is inspiring.”

With the three-strong family alternating between Tenerife and Stockholm, what are the chances of Fred becoming the third generation international swimmer after his parents and grandmother?

Therese laughs. “Fingers crossed. That would be lovely.”


Written by:

Elizabeth Byrnes

Liz swam with a local club in Sheffield, England, as a child before retiring at the grand old age of 12. Her lifelong love of the water, combined with a passion for travel, has seen Liz plunge into pools across the world. Liz spent 12 years with the Press Association reporting on swimming and athletics at Olympic and World level but is now fulfilling a dream as a freelance writer. When not in or around the water, she can be found hiking, running and cycling.