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Resurfacing at crossroads

Melanie Nocher is still getting over her Olympic nightmare, writes Marie Crowe

When Melanie Nocher finished seventh in her 200m backstroke heat at the London Olympics she was devastated. It wasn't supposed to end like that. She pulled herself out of the water and crawled to a nearby chair; her Olympic dream was dead.

Nocher's time of 2:16.29 was almost six seconds slower than her personal best (2:10.7). All the hours of training, the sacrifices, had amounted to nothing. Her body had failed her. She thought she was going to get crucified by the public for her poor performance. She felt she'd let everyone down.

What people didn't know at the time was that Nocher was sick, so sick that getting from the pool to the changing room without throwing up was the first challenge she had to overcome. She'd caught a bug a few days prior to her big race. Keeping food down was impossible; in a matter of days she'd lost 5kg. But she was at the Olympics and determined to swim; she could live with swimming badly, but she couldn't live with not trying.

Even though Nocher felt terrible going into the race she hoped that she might pull off a big performance. After all, she'd trained for four years for that moment; she couldn't quit.

But it didn't happen. So she sat in that chair beside the pool for ten minutes before making a dash for the bathroom. She threw up the minute she found an appropriate place and then sought out the Ireland team coach Peter Banks for advice. She knew the media wouldn't be happy. She had dashed past them so she wanted to make amends.

But in the meantime, an RTE reporter took to Twitter to vent his frustration with Nocher. "Some very angry Irish journalists in the mixed zone by the pool as swimmers take to Twitter but won't speak to the media," he wrote.

Nocher replied to him, explaining her situation, but the journalist persisted with his criticism.

"Mel Nocher claims gastric problems after swim in 200 back. Yet another Irish swimmer who didn't speak to the media or by extension the public," he added. It was another kick in the teeth for Nocher.

"I've been interviewed by these journalists for ten years, they know me. I always speak to the media no matter how good or bad I swim," says Nocher.

"For me to swim that bad they should have known something was wrong. I was way off my PB. I thought that they'd have more respect for me than to put something up like that on Twitter. I don't know how someone could think I'd make something like a bad tummy up, it's not something to be proud of, and it's the Olympics. No one wants to be sick."

Annoyed at the time, Nocher says it's not a big deal anymore, she's over it. Her performance at the Olympics is what she can't make peace with. Going into the Games she was in the shape of her life, swimming consistently faster than she's ever done. Even her coach – who she says never gets excited – was excited. However, Nocher's immune system has never been great so she was wary of the Olympic village and its thousands of inhabitants. In fact, she never went far without rubbing on some hand gel or washing her hands. But those precautions proved futile and within days of entering the village she was struck down with gastric problems and her performance suffered.

"I don't know if I'll ever get over it," she explains. "I'd spent so much of my life trying to get there and then for me to be sick it seemed so unfair. It would have been easier if I'd broken a bone, then I'd have had a cast and crutches and there would have been no questions about whether I should swim or not and people could see that I was physically not right. It was so hard to deal with, this was my body and it wouldn't get any better no matter what I did."

Sitting on the couch in her parents' house in Holywood, Co Down, Nocher looks every inch the Olympic athlete. She's still having a bit of down time but isn't letting herself go. Speaking of her sport and how it's shaped her life, Nocher gets very emotional. She has invested so much in it but with the Olympics so fresh in her mind she's still hurting from the experience.

"I always thought if I didn't qualify for the Olympics that I'd have to go away and not be around the Olympics because of the disappointment I knew I'd feel, but I qualified for the Olympics and I still feel like that. I don't want people to talk about it. I feel like I'm not proud of it and I don't know if I ever will be. I can't imagine having a family and wanting to talk to my kids about it."

London wasn't a great Olympics for Irish swimming with Sycerika McMahon and Barry Murphy going home disappointed and Gráinne Murphy pulling out because of illness.

Although Nocher was ill too she feels her situation was different to Murphy's because she was in perfect health going into the Games.

"I don't think you should go to the Olympics if you're not fit to swim, if you're not well and you haven't been well then don't go because at the end of the day you come to the Olympics to swim. Gráinne had been ill for a while, was she fit? It's not my call, (but) if it was me would I have gone? Probably not. I would have definitely wanted to go to say I was in the Olympics but do you want to go and not swim?"

So at 24, Nocher is at a crossroads. She's been to two Olympics, London and Beijing, but what now? She recently finished a sports science degree and a personal training qualification at Loughborough University and is now back home with her parents.

The double Olympian admits that she's fallen out of love with swimming a bit since her experience at London but she doesn't want to make any rash decisions about her future. Her whole life has been about swimming; it's all she's known and if she calls time on it too early then she'll find it difficult to return.

"From when I was ten until now I've been told what to do every day. I thought I was in control but I wasn't, my day was structured, it fitted in with everyone else's plans. I was answerable to so many people, my coach, the national governing body, the Sports Council, there is always someone there telling you what to do. I'm used to that lifestyle."

Nocher has reached that point most athletes reach at some stage in their career – an uncertain future. If she dedicates the next few years of her life to the sport and things go wrong in Rio, that, in her opinion, will have been four years wasted. Alternatively, she can go out and get a job, her first job, but with the recession and a blank CV that won't be easy.

"I've been very lucky, sport has given me a lot but realistically if you want to make a career out of swimming then you need to win medals at the Olympics. In most people's minds if you don't win one then you didn't do very well. On the other hand, I love representing my country, it's very hard to know when to stop."

Nocher needs to decide on her future soon; although 24 doesn't seem old, in the world of swimming it's not young. It's been a difficult few months for the athlete but she knows she needs to make the call. The next few weeks will be spent thinking, evaluating and reflecting with a bit of time in the water thrown in too. Swimming's been a constant in her life, it's not going to stop overnight, it's what she does.

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