After seeing his chances of a medal gradually slip away, 20-year-old Hector Pardoe began to regain momentum towards the end of the gruelling men’s 10km swim at Tokyo 2020. With the end in sight, a stray elbow left his Olympic dreams, as well as his eye-socket, in tatters. Strangely enough, the youngster recognised the dangers of a deceptively physical sport weeks before his Olympic journey began.
Pardoe would have waltzed into the Games with an air of confidence having won his FINA qualifier in June, capitalising on his final opportunity to qualify for Tokyo.
After a fast start was followed by a disappointing middle section, he launched an attack to secure a top 10 finish with just 2km to go.
Then, his chances went up in flames. While running on fumes and swimming on autopilot in the open water, a sharp elbow from an unnamed rival left him black and blue, putting an end to his afternoon.
After the race, he said: “My goggle snapped off and I couldn’t see a thing. It swelled up and I didn’t realise how bad it was. I couldn’t see anything and thought my eye had fallen out in the water.”
It was a brutal and unjust end to Pardoe’s hard-fought journey to the Games, in one of the most physically demanding yet worst-paid sports on the Olympic calendar.
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The youngster took his training to Montpellier in 2020 to grow under the tutelage of legendary French coach, Philippe Lucas.
Speaking exclusively to Express Sport back in May, Pardoe said: “Whenever I’m walking around France and people see my goggle tan lines, they know I’m a swimmer.
“When I say I’m coached by Phillipe Lucas, everybody knows who he is and what he is, a crazy coach with this ideology of training hard, and if you don’t train hard he doesn’t want to coach you.
“Anybody can run a marathon with a few months training, but if you ask most people to swim 10k with the same amount of time training I don’t think they could do it.
“Out of the Olympic sports, I would say it is the most gruelling for sure.
“My training here is geared around making you mentally strong. When you’re absolutely dead, keep going.
“When I’m training all I do is train, eat, sleep and train again and I’ve not got the energy to do much else because I’m just dead.”
That much is unsurprising, considering a normal day of training comprises of at least five hours back and forth in the pool, on top of multiple gym sessions per week.
To sustain that level of exercise, a gruelling diet of 6,000 calories a day is forced down, equivalent to 187 slices of toast day in, day out – although Pardoe’s diet is markedly more sophisticated than that.
It makes it all the more painful, therefore, when something as simple as a stray elbow can bring the end-game of that brutal preparation crashing down in an instant.
As a competitor mature beyond his years, however, Pardoe was aware of such dangers ahead of time.
He said: “It is a physical sport, you can change the race a lot by wearing someone down if you get into a pickle with them during the race.”
The risks are inherent when fierce competitors, all driven on by the prospect of Olympic gold, send arms flailing within close proximity of each other.
Indeed, Olympic glory – which only comes along once every four years – is practically the only motivation to put themselves through hour after hour of monotonous training, programming their bodies to operate like machines in the water.
The incentives certainly aren’t financial, making careers in marathon swimming short, and opportunities to win Olympic medals scarce.
He said: “There’s not enough money to keep people motivated in marathon swimming. You can only make a living out of it if you’re the best in your country, and it has to be a big country too.
“In England, Jack Burnell, who recently retired, was making a living out of it but I’m not really. I get a small amount per month and still need financial support from my parents.”
“When you’re in your early twenties, the motivation comes from medal success.”
Unfortunately for Pardoe, that success was not his destiny this summer, although getting to Tokyo in the first place was a remarkable achievement given he was Team GB’s only male representative in the men’s 10km.
With a career span which starts to fizzle out in one’s mid-to-late-twenties according to the youngster, he will surely have the opportunity to put things right at Paris 2024.
However, a few days off are undoubtedly in order between now and then.
Some frozen peas on the damaged eye will be first on the list, before eventually slipping the goggles back on and plucking up the motivation to get back in the pool and begin the monotonous training cycle which so often precedes Olympic success behind the scenes.