Stepping away from the pool: Christian Sprenger. Photo: Getty Images
Low and slow; excellent for Texas barbecue-style cooking, not the kind of feeling you want as an elite swimmer. When Christian Sprenger started to experience the former, then invariably the latter, he knew there would soon come a moment when he had to make a call on his career.
The Olympic silver medallist and former world champion breaststroker did just that in Brisbane on Thursday, making the decision to step away from the pool and avoid a push towards a third Olympic Games.
It was a difficult enough announcement for a man that had devoted most of his life to the pool, yet not as heart-wrenching as you may imagine. Speaking with impressive candour, he said a serious shoulder injury had held him back and his "mental game" was starting to suffer as a result.
Shoulder injury plagued swimmers mental health: Christian Sprenger. Photo: Getty Images
The times he was turning in were far below his expectations and something that had always felt like second nature - moving swiftly through the water - was becoming harder and harder by the session.
When swimmers are in form, they speak about being on top of the water, skipping over it like a hydroplane towards the wall. For months, Sprenger was at the other end, feeling "low" in the pool and finding the task of hauling himself ever onwards increasingly frustrating.
That sinking feeling comes and goes in patches, Sprenger said, but this time it was far harder to shake. The numbers on the clock were equally depressing. In Kazan last year at the World Championships, where he was the defending 100m champion, he failed to progress past the heats.
Yet for all of the metrics and gym work and rehab and technique tweaks that might have prolonged his career, Sprenger was losing touch with his natural "feel" in the water. More than anything, that told him his day was done.
"Swimming is all about feel in the water. It's all about that and that's ultimately how you decide if you are swimming fast or not. It kind of seems on the outside that the injury was the reason things went this way," Sprenger said.
"I have no ... no feeling towards the water right now. I look at it and don't really want to dive in. That's a good indication things are where they're supposed to be."
Call it a mutual separation. The pool had stopped giving back to Sprenger and now, he has little inclination to grace it with his presence. Even in Brisbane's hot summer, standing poolside in a polo and jeans, he couldn't have looked less interested in a cooling dip.
Sprenger had shoulder surgery at the end of 2014 and even then, his doctors were telling him little about his competitive future could be guaranteed. He said retirement had been on his mind for most of the following year.
Come 2016, the usual explosion of enthusiasm of an Olympic year was little more than a last flicker of hope. He may have been able to squeeze onto the squad, he said, but felt he had no chance of reaching his former heights.
"The ultimate realisation for me was that I was trying tp push myself to the Olympics because that was what I had always done, what I'd always known. But to be performing at those high levels, you need to have that high will, that heart and soul. For me, it was doing it because it was all I knew. That's no way to go into an Olympic year," Sprenger said.
"The biggest thing for me was my underperforming. There was no desire to make the team for the sake of it. I don't want to go and just swim a heat. That's not how I got to where I was. I understand some people might be questioning my choice but it is well calculated. There is life out there.
"I could probably scrape onto the team. But that doesn't fulfil me at all. A third Olympics, you don't just want to make the team, you want to go and perform. I decided my body and mind weren't up to the challenge."
Sprenger confessed that being occasionally over-zealous in the gym may have put a premature end to his career. By the same token, he may never have come so close to gold in London, or been on top of the world a year later. He believes the pain was worth the reward.
And now he gets to enjoy that great prize that awaits all swimmers at the end of their careers. Adjusting to that part hasn't been an issue.
"It feels quite normal to be getting up at a normal time," he said. "It feels right."