In the space of three short weeks, Max Litchfield’s path to Olympic fulfilment changed beyond recognition.
Firstly, he graduated Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in sport and exercise science, ending years of assignments and study that frees him up to think about nothing but swimming in the build up to Tokyo 2020.
Secondly, the 24-year-old from Badsworth finally touched the line first in a major international meet, an achievement that gives him the long-overdue knowledge that when it comes to the crunch he knows what it takes to claim the top step of the podium.
For Litchfield’s star has been rising quietly for a number of years, quiet in so far as the trajectory has been slow and steady.
An unexpected qualifier for the Rio Olympics of 2016, he turned that into a fourth-place finish in the 400m individual medley, a surprising result which precipitated two further fourth-place finishes at the following year’s world championships in Budapest. All encouraging, but as an Olympic athlete will tell you, no place hurts more than fourth place.
He would have to wait another year before his medal breakthrough, silver in the 400m IM and bronze in the 200m IM at the European Championships in Glasgow. And it was back in Glasgow earlier this month where he finally got over the hump, winning that elusive gold in his favoured 400m IM event at the European Short-Course Championships.
“It was a relief, it was nice to finally tick that one off,” Litchfield said.
“I never doubted myself. I work incredibly hard in training and when you then turn that into a result it’s proof that all that training is worthwhile.
“So it is nice to get that win, to know there’s no longer a question about whether you can do it.
“But at the end of the day, it’s all about moving forward, everything is a stepping stone on the road to Tokyo.”
Including, clearing his mind of studying and allowing for there to be nothing else to distract him as the focus intensifies on the 2020 Olympics.
“It was always nice to have university and to switch off from swimming for a while,” he says.
“But this is such a big year and you don’t get these opportunities very often. It’s nice to know there are no assignments, no deadlines to meet, and my focus can be completely on swimming.”
He will need it to be, because for all the positive signs, there was a severe bump in the road earlier this summer.
At the World Championships in South Korea, Litchfield finished down the final field in seventh.
“I’d had a good start to the year, qualified for the worlds team but then had a really bad swim meet at the worlds,” admits Litchfield, who will also try to qualify for the 200m IM and 200m fly at next Spring’s British Olympic trials in London. “So I’ve had to go back to the drawing board since then, looking at what we needed to change. Fortunately, along with my coach (Dave Hemmings), we’ve got a pretty good picture of what that is.
“What is a negative at the time you can always turn into a positive by working out what you learnt from the experience and what you can put into practice.
“To be able to swim well in Glasgow shows that we are on the right track.”
It is all a far cry from where he was this time four years ago, a wide-eyed 20-year-old whose only experience of a senior meet was the Commonwealth Games of 2014.
“Going into Rio I had no expectations. It had been a lifelong goal of mine but I didn’t really expect it,” he says of his fourth-place finish. “So four years on I am a lot more experienced having raced frequently against the best in the world. It can only be a positive and fills me with belief that I can deliver some fast times.”
He will have to because a strong cast list of British swimmers is snapping at his heels to claim the No 1 spot in the British medley squad, led by Duncan Scott and including his younger brother Joe.
Joe, 21, has followed Max’s swimming career closely, from where they started at Lightwaves in Wakefield, to Minsthorpe Marlins, Doncaster, City of Sheffield and now together again at Loughborough.
“Joe has had some big PBs and another strong year,” says big brother Max.
“We’re reaping the benefits of training alongside each other. We’re always pushing each other, but it’s also always nice to look over when you get out of the pool and see him there, and know he’s there for me, and I’m there for him.”