Anna Hopkin admits her younger self wouldn’t believe it, if she was told she would win an Olympic gold medal.
But the dream came true for the “Pocket Rocket”, who learned to swim at Brinscall Baths, holding off seven-time Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel to lead Team GB to victory in the inaugural Mixed 4x100m Medley Relay.
The quartet of Kathleen Dawson, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Hopkin set a world record in the process of 3:37:58, as Hopkin added to a growing collection of golds.
Only last year, at the European Championships in Budapest, she returned home with a suitcase packed with four from the 4x100m freestyle, 4x100m medley, 4x100m mixed freestyle and 4x100m mixed medley.
And the 25-year-old admitted on a flying visit home to Chorley that her achievement had scarcely sunk in: “It’s a bit ridiculous to think about it all - when you’re on the journey, everything happens quite gradually.
“When I first won a British title, that was ridiculous, your first international medal..making an Olympics is crazy, but to win a gold medal...
“If I went back to where it all started and saw myself winning an Olympic gold, I wouldn’t believe it at all!”
The road to Tokyo all started on Lodge Bank in Brinscall, at the Edwardian baths, which were built by local mill owners, the Park family, as a gift to their workers.
They are thought to be the third-oldest surviving baths in the UK - and are where this writer also took to the water for the first time!
And Hopkin looked back on how an Olympic champion was forged.
“Brinscall is probably where I started to swim, to be honest, then I joined Chorley Marlins, became part of the Gallica Lancashire squad and moved to Blackburn Centurions.
“My mum had always wanted us to learn to swim, and myself and my older brother had a knack for it, so she introduced us to Chorley Marlins.
“James joined at 11, and I was two and a half years younger, so it was quite early for me.
“I kind of came through with Chorley for a few years and moved on after that, swimming in the Micro-League - we had a really good group of girls at that age and dominated that age group, which was nice.
“I went to Lancashire (Gallica), and a bit later trained at Shadsworth in Blackburn, and Darwen Leisure Centre, until I went to Bath University.”
However, it wasn’t all an upward curve, with Hopkin falling out of love with the sport as a teenager:
I left Gallica at 13, basically I didn’t want to swim competitively any more, took a step back and did other sports, but still swam a couple of times a week at Blackburn.
“Lee Orrell was my coach at Blackburn and basically allowed me to enjoy the sport, swim when I wanted, no pressure, and floated the idea when I was 16, 17 about trying to qualify for the British Championships in 2014.
“There were probably three years when I didn’t enter any competitions, but he gradually reintroduced me.
“He used to be a body builder and introduced me to the gym, boxing, which was a lot of fun and got me back into it.
“I owe him a lot for that.
“I had been doing it so intensely, having joined Gallica at 10 - which is so young when I look back now - I had to quit other sports - I did gymnastics, running, ballet - to focus solely on swimming.
“It is the kind of sport where it is all or nothing, and I went all in for a couple of years, but I am quite academic and focused on school as well (at St Michael’s High School).”
Things started to pick up pace at university, as Hopkin explained: “Lancashire was the hardest swimming county by far when I was growing up, now it’s not quite number one anymore, but when I was coming up, if you were doing well at county level, you would do well nationally.
“After taking that break, with a lot going on, school, social, and wanting to pick up other sports again, kind of resenting swimming a bit for making me miss other sports...I just needed a break, to re-set.
“Then when I went to university in Bath it started to get more serious.
“They are very high up for sport and very good for swimming there, which was lucky for me.
“The first few years at university, I was new to the competition side of it, and more specific training, increasing my sessions, doing more gym, and my third year there I went on placement and lived in London for a year - I was working for a sports consultancy, Sports Integrated, who work with brands in the compression and nutrition industries, marketing, branding - that was really interesting.
“That was the year I made my first international event, the World University Games in 2017.
“I also won my first British Championship, so that was quite a big year.”
And university was where she decided to compete over the shorter distances, and become the “Bullet” referred to by Medley Relay teammate Guy after winning gold!
“When I was younger, I was a fly swimmer, 100, 200 fly, then when I got back into competing, I knew I couldn’t really do the longer distances and stuck to 50 fly, and when I went to university, they got me in the relays doing the 50 free and I kind of realised I was better at that, and it was a natural progression to train up to the 100.
“I realised I was more of a freestyler than a flyer!”
And dreams of becoming an Olympian came into sharp focus in first year at the University of Arkansas, where she combined her swimming with a Masters degree.
“After I graduated from Bath in 2018, I had already lined up going to America, to Arkansas, to do my Masters.
“That was with Neil Harper, who approached me while I was in London, and we got it set up.
“It seemed a win/win, because I’d get a Masters fully-funded, swim for two years, which would take me to 2020 - I still didn’t think I would make the Olympics, but I would give myself a shot.
“But that first year in America I really broke through, dropped a lot of time and made the World Championships team, which was the biggest team I’d made ever.
“I don’t think many people expected me to be in that team, so that was a really big breakthrough, and at that time I thought if I could make that team, I could make the Olympics.
“I always wanted to go to the Olympics, but it was at that point I thought ‘I actually can!’”
The pandemic saw her return from America brought forward, and she accepts the postponement of the Tokyo games helped achieve her dream.
“I do think I’ve benefited from the extra year, I was in a good position in 2020 to go, I think I would have qualified, but whether I would have had the success I’ve had this time, and whether I would have been put on the anchor leg of the freestyle, I might not have been in a position to get a medal.
“This extra year has definitely been of benefit to me.
"For some people it’s not, so I’m quite lucky.”
Now she hopes to show off her medal and help inspire the next generation.
She is hoping to visit her old high school St Michael’s, as well as Withnell Fold Primary School.
“It would be good if I could get back, I’ve been fitting in a lot, but it would be nice to take my medal to Withnell Fold Primary School, and St Michael’s.
“I did a Zoom before I left with Withnell Fold and Jason Queally (the track cyclist who won gold in Sydney in the 1 km time trial)’s daughter was asking a question, and he’d been in to visit, so they said I’d have to go in after!”