'Racing myself is one of the toughest things': Swimmer Alice Tai forced to find motivation from within for Tokyo Paralympics

Tai took a quintet of individual titles at last week’s para-swimming world championships
Tai took a quintet of individual titles at last week’s para-swimming world championships Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Alice Tai installed herself among the front runners to become the British standout star at next year's Paralympics Games in Tokyo by finishing as the most decorated athlete at the 2019 para-swimming world championships on Sunday night.

Ominously, she believes improvements can be made despite five individual titles and double relay gold. But such is the complexity of the sport’s classification system and the distance she already finds herself ahead in certain events, the 20-year-old accepts motivation will have to come largely from within.

“Para swimming can be quite confusing sometimes. Obviously people go through the classification process,” said Tai, one of the Telegraph Tokyo Eight whose progress we are tracking in the build-up to next year’s Games.

“I love a good grit-your-teeth-and-get-into-it sort of race. And I did have a few of those last week. But I’d love to have some strong competition in my main backstroke event. If I’m going to hit best times then I’m going to need people pushing me. Racing myself is probably one of the toughest things for me.”

According to new International Paralympic Committee rules, all competitors are required to go through international classification before the 2020 Games, leading to various impacts for swimmers and outcry from others.

The butterfly was the closest with Tai triumphing by 0.02 seconds Credit: PA

British Paralympic champion Oliver Hynd, for example, was moved to compete against less-impaired swimmers and failed to qualify for the worlds.

Tai, born with bilateral tilapes (club feet), competes as an S8 swimmer after being classed down from the S10 category she made her Paralympic debut in at Rio 2016 and where she won 100m backstroke bronze.

One of her new rivals is America's multiple Paralympic champion Jessica Long, an S8 swimmer her whole life and who has admitted her motivation has been affected by the new changes which has left her category notably tougher with new athletes coming across. Tai beat Long in four finals in London - the 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 100m butterfly and 400m freestyle - while the Briton’s fifth individual title came in the 50m freestyle final, which Long did not reach.

The butterfly was the closest with Tai triumphing by 0.02 seconds. But perhaps tellingly for Tokyo, Tai’s 400m freestyle victory - by over two seconds - brought an end to third-placed Long’s ten-year winning streak. The 100m freestyle was won by a similar margin and Tai succeeded in her favoured backstroke event by an astonishing 8.33 seconds.

“Regardless of where I sit within the system and who my competitors are, I’m still striving for PBs," says Tai in response to whether she is now favourite for multiple golds in 2020.

"In sport, bettering yourself is how it works. Whatever success comes out of self improvement is reward for hard work. “I’d like to think my swims can improve for Tokyo and multiple medals are achievable. But nothing is set in stone, I could get disqualified in the heats or finals."

Victory in the final race of the meet on Sunday night - the women's 4x100m freestyle relay featuring Tai - elevated Great Britain to second behind Italy in the final medal table with 19 golds and 47 podium finishes in total.