British Pioneer Ben Proud Becomes First Man To Claim World, Commonwealth & Now European 50 Free Crowns In One Season
Britain’s Ben Proud delivered his third knockout of the summer in the 50m freestyle with a 21.58 blast into the pantheon of speedsters as the first man in history to claim the World, Commonwealth and European titles in one season.
Proud won it with a phenomenal start and speed over the first 40 metres – and then he hung on to secure gold by just 0.02sec.
That ‘one season’ was spread over just seven weeks:
- 21.32 – June 24, Budapest: World title (first British swimmer to claim the crown)
- 21.36 – August 3, Birmingham: Commonwealth title for England to make it three wins in a row, 2014, 2018 and 2022
- 21.58 – August 17, Rome: European title, his second gold after he became the first British swimmer to claim the continental crown in 2018 (he also claimed bronze in 2014 and silver in 2021)
- Rome Result in full
“It’s a great achievement, said Proud. “After the last couple of months that have been really tough, it feels like something very special. After the Olympics I took me a while to face my demons and realise that I needed to make some changes. They were the ones who brought me to where I am now. The whole three-month period between March and June was really strange and it also took a while to feel better and find ways for my swimming to make it sustainable. I had three goals: Worlds, Commonwealth, Europeans – it all really feels surreal.”
Proud Had It From Go To Gold
Proud was the master of starts in the field this day. Streamlining beyond his rivals he surged into stroke a head and shoulders up on the field and never truly looked in danger, even as th strains of three targets in seven weeks took a grip and he tightened a touch in the closing 5m as Italian Leonardo Deplano thundered home, falling just 0.02sec shy of gold. Dash finals are often nervy affairs and this one was more tense than Proud’s World-title and Commonwealth-title highs of the summer. The bronze went to Kristian Gkolomeev, of Greece, in 21.75.
Deplano said: “I did my personal best… what can I say, what could be better than this? I’m really happy, I’m enjoying the moment, it’s my first individual podium ever, I’m at home and the audience makes this moment very unique. I think competing at home is a great luck, which we may not have next time.”
Gkolomeev “felt great”, adding: “It was a good race and I’m very happy with the result. I took a breat after the Olympics so I started training again in March only so I can only be satisfied with this medal. My baby was born two months ago that’s why I had to take some time off. It’s been a lot of changes but everything is great and they are even here and watching me from the stands.”
“I think I’ve found a sweet spot in my career,” said Proud after the most intense and successful seven weeks of his career.
Proud, as polite and pleasant athlete as you could care to meet in any circumstance and any point along the roller-coaster of performance sport, was pleased as pleased as the three punches he’d delivered:
“Budapest was great, Birmingham, home crowd, fantastic; and here, Foro Italico, what a venue… its’ just been a brilliant summer, you can’t ask for anything more. I’ve had such a great experience. We go back to the drawing board for next year with this summer to look back on and say ‘that was great fun’.”Ben Proud – Photo: Ben Proud walks out to the world-title fight in Budapest in June (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
There was, said Proud, more work to be done “on my endurance”, his recovery from rock-bottom this year having been marked by a return of speed but not the depth of specific work to turn a 21.1 sprinter into a man travelling like a 21.1 sprinter until; the closing 10m.
The Road To Rock Bottom – And Out Into The Light Once More
Coached by James Gibson at Energy International and Mark Skimming at Team Bath, the 27-year-old paid plaudits to his mentors, including strength and conditioning coach Marco Cosso and dedicated his historic World title in June to his parents, coaches and friends who had been there for him when fifth place at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year had sent him on “a roller-coaster of mental health issues”.
In Tokyo last year, Proud had broken down in tears after a great semi-final converted to frustration and sorrow: his best time that would have taken silver a slither behind American Caeleb Dressel.
Back to the drawing board and all the lessons he’d learned down the years in Singapore as a boy and then with coach Jon Rudd, now head of performance in Ireland, at Plymouth Leander and College. When Rudd moved to Ireland after Rio 2016, Gibson took over Proud’s preparation.
In Budapest in June this year, Gibson told his charge ahead of the final to “just focus on the details, nail the start and get into the wall at the finish”. A simple instruction that paid a golden dividend for Proud, who already had Commonwealth and European titles and in the same Duna Arena pool in 2017 claimed the World 50m butterfly title.
Proud explained just how low he’d fallen after the trauma of Tokyo:
“Twelve months ago pretty much to the day, I was trying to disappear and get my head to myself and really try to bump off what was really the worst point in my swimming career.
“I have only got myself to blame for what happened last year at the Olympics. I was putting pressures on myself that shouldn’t have been there and I didn’t realise but that was forcing me to hit rock-bottom.
“I went through a very tough winter and ended up hitting rock-bottom and losing relationships and losing mental health and getting to the point where I was about to walk away from the sport.
“It took hitting rock-bottom for me to be like right the only way is up and I’m only going to do this if I can find a love for it and if I can do something I can make sustainable but also enjoy as a career. I’m 27.
“So I started making changes and I think the biggest thing I did was be true to myself.
“I did things I wanted to do and went to places I wanted to go, took the time off when I needed it and had brilliant support from some great people this year who have all played different roles to get me where I am.”Ben Proud – Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer
The 27-year-old resolved “to do this if I can find a love for it and if I can do something I can make sustainable but also enjoy as a career.” He added: “The toughest point was also a breath of fresh air because for the first time in a couple of years I had clarity on where I was going and what I needed to do. “ He almost quit but recalled:
Luckily I had the right people around me. Mark Skimming (coach at Bath) kept me going, kept me in the water and let me have the time to realise what I wanted to do and that allowed me to move on … Three months ago I wasn’t thinking about performances at all. I was going out to Turkey with Marco [Cosso]. I was going through the motions … Budapest was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time.”Ben Proud with Marco Corso, courtesy of James Gibson
Cosso had “been a legend”, said Proud. “He’s really got me to a great place both physically and mentally. Its only been the last couple of months, so let’s see … in the next two years…”.
Three major meets inside two months? Proud defected the question on top others, saying “much respect” too the Peatys, Dressels and other multi-eventers who “do this year in and year out”.
“It’s physically and mentally tough. That showed in the race today. It was a little bit slower than the other two swims,” said Proud before expressing a hope that Dressel is faring well after “a phenomenal five years”. The American left the World Championships in June suffering from an unspecified “medical condition” and missed a clash with Proud in the 50m and David Popovici in the 100m freestyle. Nothing has been heard of Dressel’s recovery since.
Where It All Came From … Ben Proud The Younger Years
From The SwimVortex/SOS Archive – Craig Lord & Liz Byrnes – 2014
Less than three years ago a tall, lean 16-year-old called Ben Proud left his home in Malaysia for a sporting life back in Britain, a raw sprinter with his eyes set on becoming the best he could be.
Fast forward to July 2014 and the same teenager stood aloft of the podium at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – not once, but twice.
Victory in the 50m butterfly in 22.93 not only propelled the Plymouth Leander swimmer to the top of the Tollcross rostrum but also to the head of the world rankings – the only man to dip under 23seconds to date.
Roland Schoeman, former double world champion, and his fellow South African Chad le Clos were among those left trailing in his wake.
Proud backed up with triumph in the 50m freestyle, Australian pair Cameron McEvoy and James Magnussen beaten to the gold by the unassuming English teen.
His time of 21.76 in the semis placed him in the world’s top eight and gave him a second British record of the meet following his butterfly exploits. There was a third medal – a bronze – in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
His is a story of what happens when raw talent is recognised by one man and is fine-tuned by another with a student who is willing to learn and to take on board hard lessons. Add in a passion for sprinting and Ben Proud is the result.
The story begins in September 1994 when Ben was born in London, a second son for Nick and Sally Proud, three years after the arrival of older brother Oliver. Five months later, the family moved to Kuala Lumpur after his father landed a job in the Malaysian capital.
They loved the life out there and stayed for another year and another year until it became home. A water-loving family, the youngest Proud was swimming by the age of two and at seven he was the youngest on the team at Alice Smith School. There he was introduced to small competitions but didn’t think it was the sport for him.
In 2008 the fates conspired to bring Proud together with coach Francis Kiu and set in motion a journey with an unknown destination. Kiu had been a swimmer before in Proud’s words he got a “proper job” and it was he who immediately saw the raw talent of the teenager. Recalls Proud:
“I had a one-to-one session with him because no-one else from the swim club turned up. It was just me, him and one of my friends. After that he turned to me and said ‘you have got some good talent. By the end of next year I want to make you national age group champion’.”Ben Proud – courtesy of Gian Mattia D’Alberto / lapresse, for arena
Training in board shorts and doing less than a kilometre a session, he began to take the sport more seriously, going from five hours to 12 hours a week. All the time the focus was on the sprints.
Proud is grateful for a great start:
“Kiu taught me the basics: if I hadn’t have had him as a coach I wouldn’t be where I am today because he taught me fundamental things about training. A lot of dives, a lot of technique work. He brought down my times by about three seconds in the 50s in one year.”Ben Proud – courtesy of Plymouth Leander
The partnership soon bore fruit with success at the Selangor age groups before Proud stepped up to the national age groups and then the Malaysian Open, where he won the 50m butterfly and was second in the 50m freestyle. Here’s what bro Oliver captured:
At this point Proud informed his mum he wanted to purse a swimming career – he wanted to be a world-class athlete. He notes: “It was my own independent choice: I decided that if I wanted to swim competitively as a career I was going to have to come back to the UK at some point just to get my name out there. To get on to the teams and do Commonwealths and everything like that.”
After speaking to a family friend whose daughter had been at Plymouth Leander, Proud spoke to head coach Jon Rudd and at the age of 16 years 11 months he found himself in south-west England.
While he had visited family in Britain, he had never spent more than a month there and it was never a place he had envisaged himself living. Malaysia had even offered dual nationality. “But I couldn’t change it. I’m English. Ever since I’ve been back I’ve become more patriotic.”
A New Regime
The workload at Leander was a shock to Proud’s system. Rudd told Liz Byrnes of SwimVortex “He had zero endurance: he couldn’t finish a 50 never mind finish a 100. But boy did he have twitch and speed and what I had to do was finesse what he already had but bring something else to the table so he could finish races, so he wasn’t dying at 35m.”
For his part, Proud recognises: “I wasn’t an athlete when I was out there: I knew I had to swim fast but I couldn’t run, I couldn’t squat, I couldn’t do anything.
“Moving to Plymouth, it made me smarter about my swimming and my lifestyle which I think go hand in hand. If I hadn’t moved to Plymouth I wouldn’t be swimming as well as I am so I owe my thanks to both Francis Kiu in Malaysia and Jon.”Ben Proud (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
One thing he noted on arrival was less of a focus in Britain on the one-length sprints. “In Malaysia the 50s were what everyone liked to do. Come here and not many people actually do it,” says Proud. “I hope in Britain the 50s become more of an event.”
Proud Makes A Splash In Senior Waters
There was a silver medal for Proud [photo: SWPix.com] in the 50 ‘fly at the 2012 European Junior Championships as well as fifth in the 50 free before he did not so much as announce himself on the senior stage as crash bang wallop on to it at the British World Championship trials in 2013.
He took a sledgehammer to Mark Foster’s 50 fly record which had stood since 2003, reducing it by 0.22 to 23.29 before further lowering his mark to 23.10 in the final, thereby hurtling to third in the world rankings and a place on the GB team for the worlds in Barcelona.
He was speechless when interviewed on camera on poolside, his shock obvious to all present at Ponds Forge. he recalls: “It was just such a massive improvement. And I’m camera shy. I’d thought if I win this I have to speak to the cameras.”
Barcelona world titles last year marked his senior international debut and his nerves came to the fore. “My first race was the 50 fly: I was in lane four and had Rafael Munoz to my left and Cesar Cielo to my right who are two people I have been watching on YouTube for years – world record holder and world champion.”
He finished 11th in the butterfly and 18th in the freestyle but describes Spain as a building block, a learning experience and one that has played a part in his 2014 success. “I watched the final with (British coach) James Gibson and learned that people who tightened up and got stressed out missed out on a medal. So this year I knew what I had to do: keep it calm.”
A lesson learned, the 19-year-old certainly kept it calm in Glasgow and he beams when asked about what immediately comes to mind when he thinks of his exploits in Scotland.
“The 50 fly. I think that is the one I did almost perfectly. Me and James (Gibson) have been talking about it the past year: keeping cool, don’t let the nerves get to me, being faster every round and that is when the medal will come.”Ben Proud – Photo by Gian Mattia D’Alberto / lapresse courtesy of arena
Rudd was England’s head coach in Glasgow and said: “There was always the chance he was going to win. He wasn’t ranked to win, he hadn’t had a particularly good trials so there must have been an element of doubt in his mind creeping around in there. I think when it finally happened there was just this wave of relief, excitement, emotion for his family. It was a big, big deal.”
There was no let-up for Proud who found himself at the ASA National Youth Championships in Sheffield last week. Victories in the fly and free were accompanied by a 48.88 personal best in the 100m free, the first time he cracked 49seconds.
He had missed out on the 100m free final in Glasgow and admits he has a way to go with the event: “I never trained for it in Malaysia. I had to get greater fitness and improve my back end. I do fine in training but when it comes to racing I have to find a way to merge the two.”
The week ahead brings the European Championships in Berlin. Britain has 21 swimmers at the meet after the withdrawal of Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, through illness, and Robbie Renwick for personal reasons.
Proud arrives at his blocks in Germany top of the world rankings on 50 ‘fly and third European in the free behind 2013 world silver medallist Vladimir Morozov and Olympic champion Florent Manaudou.
Proud’s expectations are in check: “They are going to be tapered and ready for it whereas I’ll still be a bit dazed from Commonwealths. Going into Commonwealths it was all about the time: if I could do a good time the medal would come.”
He adds: “If I can move further on from that 21.7 or that 22.9, I don’t see why medals aren’t possible but competition in Europe is a lot harder than sprinting in Commonwealths. You’ve got Florent Manaudou, Rafael Munoz – so many people that are sprint focused. But it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be another challenge.”
Rudd will be in Berlin with Proud’s Plymouth team-mate Ruta Meilutyte, the Olympic 100m breaststroke champion – but only from later on in the meet: coach and world-record holding breaststroke ace will spend the first half of the week focussing on a 100m challenge in Nanjing at the Youth Olympics before flying back to Germany for the 50m at Europeans [Photo: Meilutyte and Rudd, by Patrick B. Kraemer]
Rudd is confident that Proud will be able to adapt to and succeed in different environments:
“It’s to do the swims fastest his body is capable of on that particular day. The thing I am most comfortable with now that I have ever been with Ben is that he is not daunted by the intensive environment like he was at worlds in 2013.”Ben Proud – 2016, courtesy of British Swimming
He adds: “He was a bit of a rabbit in the headlights: he had never been to anything except a European juniors, never seen anything but then suddenly goes into the World Championships ranked third in the 50 fly and it was all a bit too much a bit too soon.
“I don’t think there is any of that now and it’s great that the way he can cut his teeth is at Commonwealth and European level. Get ready for a worlds and then get ready for an Olympics, it fits really nicely into his development.:
Challenges Ahead For Proud & The Coaches
Says Rudd: “He won’t have any fears of what he is capable of when he gets there and it will be great to take on the fast Europeans. He has beaten the Australians, he has taken Roland (Schoeman) on who is one of the most experienced in the world and he took on George Bovell parading around him in the 50 freestyle final and none of that bothered him.
“That’s part of what we have done in the last 12 months,” says Rudd. “… expose him to international competition: World Cups, Mare Nostrums – so he feels at home, he feels like he has a right to be there and now he knows they are just flesh and bone and beatable. And that is great – we are ready for that next step I am sure.”
Proud’s eye light up when naming those sprinters he looks up to – Alain Bernard, Cielo, Schoeman and the recently-retired Eamon Sullivan, who had one last crack of the whip before injury called time on his career.
Says Proud: “Now I’ve kind of raced these people and beaten Schoeman. It’s surreal. Last year I raced against them at the World Championships. It made me see they are only human, I can beat them one day. At Commonwealth Games when I beat them I did not let who they were affect my race. I treated them as anybody else and that kind of helped.”
His passion for the 50s is palpable:
“It comes very naturally to me. I dive in the water and the water takes over. I don’t know what it is about the 50s, it’s something I have always been very passionate about. It’s a balance between personal strength and a calmness and not making mistakes. There’s no room for error. It’s a test of speed rather than tactics or anything else really.”
“If you look at the 200 free – I really wish I could learn to race them because they look like such a fun event but the tactics…there is so much more to think about. For me the 50s are just get in and race and go as fast as you can. It’s something I’ve always been good at, keeping focus and doing what I do in training in the pool.”Ben Proud – (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
Rudd describes Proud as “a scholar of the event” and believes his sprinting background in Kuala Lumpur was a blessing. “I kind of think his speed was rescued by being in Malaysia because we had a long culture in the 2000s to 2008/09 period that was very volume driven in what we were doing,” says the coach.
I think that culture could have finished him. He was allowed to do a whole bunch of 25m sprints in school galas all his life in Malaysia because that is all they did and all they knew.”
Proud is now studying sports development and coaching at the University of St Mark and St John , which, like Plymouth College, has a partnership with the Leander swim club to make sport and study possible. The trust between the sprinter and Rudd is evident.
“We are cut off from everything in Plymouth. It works for us because Jon knows what he is doing,” says Proud. “The faster I get the more he knows what does work and what doesn’t. Deep down Jon knows everything you need to know about sprinting.”
Rudd returns the compliment:
“Ben is a true gentleman, extremely humble, very modest. He’s extremely single minded and focused. He doesn’t just talk the talk he walks the walk.
“When you talk about international athletes living the lifestyle he is absolutely beacon standard with all the things that are outside my control and sphere of influence. The 18 hours a day I don’t see him.
“He is a great role model who wants to know what it takes to be at the top of the game. Too many people think it’s just about doing the swimming, just about doing your gym well and the rest of the time it doesn’t really matter. It truly is a 24 hour, seven days a week, living the lifestyle thing and Ben does that brilliantly.”Jon Rudd – Photo: Ben Proud – courtesy of Team England
Just The Beginning For Ben Proud
Rudd believes there is much more to comes from his young charge: “He made a courageous decision at the age of 16 and come out of his comfort zone and leave Malaysia and come and swim with us in Plymouth.
“It’s a fantastic story and one that is just beginning I think.”Jon Rudd – Photo: Ben Proud, by Gian Mattia D’Alberto / lapresse, courtesy of arena