Therese Alshammar is one of Sweden’s most successful swimmers of all time – and now an ambassador for “2026”. Here she talks about her new life as a mother, her Olympic memories, why it never was about the medals, and why she thinks Sweden should host the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
”We must improve public health and public fitness, and I believe that hosting an Olympic Games can serve this purpose” she says.
We meet Therese at a café in central Stockholm. She is a bit tired and says that it has been a long day, as it often is nowadays since her training and time in the water has to be slotted in early in the morning, before the rest of the family wakes up.
We begin by talking about what Therese does now that she no longer “lives” in the pool as she did during the active part of her career. It quickly transpires that swimming does of course remain an important part of her life.
“I have a one-year old, so I spend most of my time being a hands-on mother. However, I have a few projects in the works, and I mainly want to focus on promoting swimming and swimming proficiency. In fact, we created a free app that teaches children to float in the water in 12 steps. The videos on the app are of my son and I and focus on allowing children to feel comfortable being in the water.”
“I also try to draw attention to swimming in general, and make people understand that you have to practice with your children. I have children and I love to swim so it feels very natural, but it is not always a given that people go swimming with their children as often as they should.”
Do you think swimming is taught too late in schools today?
“It really depends on the individual school, as the municipalities generally decide what is acceptable. There are swimming tests that require children to swim 200 meters, and these tend to take place in the 6th grade. But if you are in the 6th grade and can’t already swim, then that really is very concerning.
“There is a first test in the 1st grade, but most municipalities in Stockholm determine that if you can swim once you’re in the 1st grade, you won’t have swimming lessons. Only those who can’t swim will get lessons as it all comes down to resources.
We then continue to speak of Therese’s own swimming. She is obviously not swimming as much today as when she was active and competing, but she could never completely quit this sport that she truly loves.
“I swam this morning. My partner is a swimming coach, so we go to the pool a couple of times a week. However, when I swim alone, I wake up before my family and head over to the pool really early, and that’s something I do a couple of times a week. I’m really happy with that as it’s tough to go and train “just” to feel good versus to be in top physical shape.”
Tell us about your retirement…
“I retired quite abruptly; partly because I had other priorities in life such as starting a family, but also because I was injured, and had back pain in particular. Instead of cutting down on my training, I decided to end my active career rather abruptly the moment I started having problems bending my back.
“I quit because I was in so much pain. But the reason I swam for so long, and continue to do so now, is that I simply love swimming. That’s why I enjoy sharing my joy and love of the sport with others, and to introduce people to this magical world in, and under, water.”
Was it difficult to quit?
“There was obviously a sense of loss and sorrow, because I had done something I loved for so long. But I am also extremely grateful for what I get to experience today as well. You put so much into it, and you easily become quite fixated when you’re a professional athlete; that is the disadvantage, you become very focused on your sport, and only doing stuff that benefits your sport.
We then go on to talk about how it all began and how her mother, also a successful swimmer, was a major inspiration throughout her career.
“I grew up with a mother who swam in an Olympic final, and I grew up thinking I could be as good as, if not better than, her. It is always harder to ‘go where no man has gone before’; it is much easier to follow in someone else’s footsteps. If someone has done something, perhaps passing a magical goal, there’ll be ten other people trying to do the same, just better.”
We often have philosophical discussions at home about ‘how much to push children’ and what you should or shouldn’t give them. In the end I believe it all comes down to the individual: for example, I really don’t think my five-year-old has my “swimming genes”, while my one year old is already kicking his legs really well.
What do you think of Sweden’s bid to host the 2026 Games?
“I think that it is a great and brave choice by the Swedish Olympic Committee to bid for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. My swimming career started back when there were talks of hosting the Games in Sweden in 2000. The Erikdalsbadet swimming pool, where I did the majority of my training, was built with the Olympic Games in mind.
“Today, you would really need to build a new pool in Stockholm. Erikdalsbadet is overcrowded and there is little time for training and lessons and play. But we wouldn’t have had such a strong swimming tradition and culture as we do today if the pool had not been built.
Therese, like so many athletes we have spoken to about the 2026 bid, believes that the Winter Games will be good for the Swedish people and a great inspiration to be more active.
“I think the Winger Olympics would be great for Stockholm and Sweden. Our public health needs to improve and we need to pay more attention to physical activity, and hosting an Olympic Games will certainly serve this purpose. It is of the utmost importance to have a common goal, regardless of whether this is in your private life, at work or as a nation.”
“At the same time our children, the generation who is 10 years old today, might get to witness the Olympics on home soil. This might inspire them to be an Olympian when they are 20-22 years old, fostering the strength and competitive spirit that is necessary.”
Therese does of course want to be part of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2026, although as yet she isn’t quite sure how.
”Can I compete?” she laughs.
”The Swedish Olympic Committee has been so important for my career. Swimming had always been more of an amateur sport in Sweden, and today is it bigger and more professional than ever before. I know the SOC will have great people in place ad I would love to help and be part of it all, though I don’t know exactly how right now… we’ll figure something out!”
What are your best Olympic memories?
“In retrospect, I remember 2016 best of all, simply because it was the most recent, but I also remember 1996 very well. At the last Olympics, I was already a mother, my back had started troubling me and I knew these were probably my last Games, which they were. I also remember the Opening Ceremony, when I got to be a flag bearer – that was amazing, emotional and unforgettable.”
“The thing I remember, and love most about the Olympics, is the atmosphere at my first Olympics, just taking everything in. The Olympics are so much more than simply a competition to everyone, they are the coming together of nationalities, nations, cultures, experiences. Even the living experience is so different than at other competitions, like eating together in a massive dining hall.”
The Sydney Olympics were Therese’s best Games in terms of results: she came home with two silvers and a bronze medal.
She tells us about Sydney and reveals that it was never about the medals for her. That is a strange thing to hear from a successful swimmer who has amassed more than seventy international championship medals.
“In terms of results, Sydney was one of my best Olympic Games. And it stands out because it was such an incredibly joyful event. It’s my prototype. Now that we’re bidding and might even host the Winter Games in Stockholm, we’re going to have those same kind of registration plates. In Sydney, you can still see plates with “Sydney 2000” and the Olympic symbol on some older cars. In general, people were very enthusiastic, and they beat all the records for numbers of volunteers, which is pretty remarkable.”
“When it comes to medals, I’m terrible at remembering them, and I actually have no interest in them. I’ve never been interested in times, statistics or results.
Why do you think?
“You’re allowed to be incredibly narcissistic when you’ve won many times and you just want to keep winning, and that’s not me. That forced me to find something else to think about, rather than just being the best all the time. That’s not my nature and it doesn’t appeal to me. And if you’ve ever won a European or World Championship, it’s good to find something else to drive you, so that motivation doesn’t wither away.”
Do you still have your medals?
“I think I do. I haven’t paid much attention to them, but I have a good few in my cellar and at my mum’s. Someone once told me that I’d want them one day, but I actually don’t think I will,” Therese says.
“I know that medals mean a lot to many people, but not to me. What I remember is the events themselves. Like my first world record. I remember so much about that race; that I was surprised afterwards and the whole situation was so full of joy, it was such a special occasion. I also remember other races and more practical stuff, more than I do the results per se in the form of medals.”
Therese has two sons, one aged five and the other aged one and a half.
“Becoming a mother has been a big change, as it always is when you become a parent. But it’s been fantastic too,” Therese says.
“It’s been so fun and amazing. Just thinking that my youngest is almost one and a half evokes this little feeling of “emptiness” because he’s not a baby anymore. I think it’s a great savior for women who no longer compete. Becoming a parent gives you a whole new and very strong identity.”
“That can be the case for men too of course, but I think that mums, certainly the first year, are much busier with everything. That gives you an identity of being completely indispensable to another human being, something that is a million times greater than sport. It’s a wonderful thing to experience.”
We end our conversation by returning to the 2026 bid. We talk about all the athletes that Therese envies, as they will have the chance to compete in an Olympics in Sweden. But she has some importance advice to give as well. “If I were to give advice to all the Swedish athletes competing on home soil, they should remember that the Olympics themselves are a big deal, because they’re only held every four years. And if you reach the Olympics on home soil, you should remember that people will cheer for you because you’ve made it to the starting line. People don’t expect you to win just because it’s on home soil – the support is there to encourage you to be brave and really push yourself.”