Why bubbly three-time Olympian Fran Halsall is so full of beans despite retirement at 26

Fran Halsall
Halsall last week put an end to an 11-year career Credit: Andrew Fox

The ebullient Fran Halsall, as lively as baking soda thrown into a vat of vinegar, is chattering at her usual clip about retirement, the coffee business, and her nagging compulsion to dial into radio phone-ins. While she might technically be a woman of leisure at 26, having last week hung up her goggles after an 11-year career, she still talks as fast as she swims, her words unspooling in an endearing stream of consciousness, spanning everything from gin-and-tonics to a newly acquired love of rowing. 

“There’s more to me than blowing bubbles,” she says, excitedly. “I find that when I’m interested in things, I tend to run with them. I’m a bit obsessive.”

Once, the obsession was kick-boxing, then, as a former student of religious philosophy, it was the writings of Thomas Aquinas, but lately it has been the pressing prospect of setting up a coffee shop. Halsall, more accustomed in her trade to the scent of chlorine than caffeine, has no sooner stepped away from the pool than she has shown her eye for entrepreneurship by designing her first café, in collaboration with her close friend and former British cyclist Jess Varnish. Its name? Common Ground.

“I’ve had to figure out, quickly, what a profit/loss spreadsheet is,” Halsall explains, laughing. “I have had to see accountants. I’ve also realised that you can’t just fritter money away on nice pottery. Jess and I are both passionate about it, as we both wanted something we could give our all to. I’ve got to have a purpose, otherwise I’d go mad. I would be turning into my dog in no time.” 

Credit: PA

It has become quite a fad among British sports stars, both active and retired, this penchant for moonlighting as master baristas. Chris Robshaw, the England flanker, has invested much money and energy in a Winchester shop called Red, White and Black, while even Halsall’s boyfriend, St Helens rugby league captain Jon Wilkin, has shown similar punning ability with his own enterprise, Pot Kettle Black. This proved the inspiration for Halsall to try her hand at a macchiato or a peppermint mocha with extra syrup, as she and Varnish – best known these past 12 months for her claims of a sexist, bullying culture at British Cycling – discovered their perfect premises in Altrincham, the fast-gentrifying Manchester suburb. The grand opening is tentatively scheduled for April.

“I notice how much pride Jon takes, when he sees people’s joy at what he has created,” she says. “It made me realise that I needed to create my own business. When you’re an elite athlete, you spend a lot of time taking of control over what you do. It’s a skill you develop very early on. I would find it quite difficult to go into a job where I had to answer to other people.” 

Halsall seems, unusually by her standards, at peace with what she has accomplished. In 2012, she was distraught at missing out by fractions on an Olympic medal in London, with two fifth places and a sixth, acknowledging that it took her months to absorb the anguish.

In Rio last summer, she came even closer in the 50 metres freestyle, finishing fourth, a mere six hundredths of a second behind the champion, Pernille Blume of Denmark. This time, though, with three Commonwealth and 10 European golds upon to fall back, she has found the trauma a little easier to accept.

“I did a lot of work with a sports psychologist, Richard Hampson, and we reached a view that my self-worth was based to a large extent on what I did in the pool. That’s a hard thing to come around to. I loved pushing myself as a swimmer, but now I feel happier as a person, in my values. Sorry, this is all sounding a bit hippy, isn’t it?” One of Halsall’s winning traits is that she has little time for artifice or affectation.

A Southport lass of wholesome charm and earthy humour, she describes herself memorably in her Twitter biography as “70 per cent professional athlete, 20 per cent Krispy Kreme addict, 10 per cent rock star”. It is tempting to wonder, now that the sporting dimension has been removed, how these proportions might shift. “That’s interesting,” she says.

“I think I’m still trying to figure it out. I still like my Krispy Kremes, but they might have to go down to 10 per cent, given I’m not doing so much exercise. Plus, I don’t know if Jon will be able to handle me if I get any more rock star-ish.”

Halsall (left) won relay gold in the World Championships in Kazan in 2015 Credit: Reuters

It turns out that her psychologist has been channelling a concept popularised by Professor Steve Peters, mind coach to every tortured genius from Jonny Wilkinson to Ronnie O’Sullivan, in encouraging her to start considering her “inner chimp” – namely, the emotional part of the brain that responds, in his book The Chimp Paradox, to impressions and interpretations rather than facts.

“My chimp is called Jean, and Jean is dead cool,” Halsall declares, proudly. “She thinks she can win whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She’s bold and brash, giving the finger to the world.” 

Halsall, for all her breeziness, is not quite so brazen, although she is hardly afraid of broadcasting her opinions to the widest possible audience.

This might help illustrate her fascination with the shrill world of phone-ins. “I love them,” she says. “I nearly called up LBC the other day.

“I was almost one of those people. They were having a debate about whether it was ever OK to go into a supermarket in your pyjamas. Someone argued that you would come across as really lazy, that you couldn’t be bothered to get dressed. I nearly rang in to protest, ‘I used to have to get up at 5am every morning, change into my costume and go training.’ My thought was, ‘Why would I bother changing? If I have to pop into Tesco to pick up some breakfast, I’m going to do it in my PJs, aren’t I?’”

It is integral to Halsall’s nature that she is forever questioning even the most quotidian issues. One matter that she has resolved decisively, though, is that of retirement. After over a decade of ascetic self-denial in swimming, she found the sport could no longer contain her restless urge to explore a world beyond. In her case, it was an epiphany akin to waking up and smelling the coffee.