Jeanette Ottesen has a presence. A 5-time Olympian with over 50 international swimming medals to her name, it would be easy to pin her self-assured nature to her long list of accolades, but Ottesen’s confidence comes from the inside, not the outside.
At 16, fresh off her first Olympics, Ottesen knew she wanted to be the best swimmer. Ottesen says, at that point, she thought that meant training with the best at the national elite centre. But instead of flourish, Ottesen struggled with intense training, disordered eating, and injuries for three years. Her stubborn persistence continued to convince her parents it was the right place for her but, seeing her gradually breakdown, eventually her parents forced her to take a break. After enjoying life as a teenager for a few months, Ottesen started to miss the water and was ready to come back—on her own terms.
Instead of the prestigious national elite centre, Ottesen opted for her local swim club in Copenhagen. It might not have been the “right” way to pursue swimming but Ottesen knew it was the right way for her and that decision set her on a path that she continued to forge throughout her career.
“I walk my own path and I’m really proud of that,” Ottesen says. Of course, she admits, it wasn’t always easy to push-back on what was conventional. “I’ve always felt like the black sheep in Danish swimming because I always wanted to do my own thing,” she says. “I always felt like my gut was never wrong and I followed my gut feeling. It wasn’t always well received by coaches and other swimmers so I had to fight my case very often.”
Even when it came to swimwear, Ottesen recalls the 2008 Olympics when the prescribed swimsuit didn’t fit her body so, naturally, she didn’t want to race in it. “Everybody said no you can’t do it you’ll get a fine. I was like, you know what, I’m going to do what’s best for me and I just did it. Yes, I got a fine and there was so much trouble afterwards but I swam the race of my life and I got into the Olympic final—doing the ‘wrong’ thing.”
Now a mother, no more than ever has Ottesen had to follow her own path in swimming. With less time to train and less control over her schedule, balancing family with her career has brought on a whole new dynamic. With a child,” Ottesen laughs, “we have a plan until we have a new plan…it’s a lot more loose.” However, even though the change has been hard, with the help of her partner and coach Marco Loughran, Ottesen says she feels even more free to swim her own way: “I compete and swim more free. Of course, I still have high expectations of myself but my world doesn’t collapse if I don’t perform,” she says.
At the beginning of her career, Ottesen says, “there was only one way of training and that was the best way of training. Many coaches were like ‘we have to do it like this because it’s by the book’,” Ottesen explains. “Now, people dare to do their own thing. They dare to have their own training methods, do what’s best for them individually and it’s a very good development in swimming,” Ottesen says. “You don’t have to train thirty hours a week. You can still become a good swimmer training twenty hours a week,” she says.
A living example of what she preaches, Ottesen represented Denmark at her 5th Olympic Games in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay in Tokyo- baby, unpredictable training schedule, and all, showing once again that following her own instincts pays off.
“It can’t be true that we have to follow somebody else’s rules. That can’t be right. We have to do what’s best for us otherwise you can’t perform your best,” Ottesen states. “Respect other people but when it comes down to showtime, you do what’s best for you.”