Alicia Coutts at the AIS with the 21 medals she has won over the past three years. Photo: Rohan Thomson
SHE broke down in tears at the world championships last month, distraught in the belief she'd let down her relay teammates by anchoring them to second in the 4 x 100 metres freestyle final.
But on the eve of the Australian short course championships in Sydney this week, Canberra-based Alicia Coutts revealed the struggle she faced just to get back into the pool after the triumph and torment of the London Olympics.
"I've struggled this whole year, really," said Coutts, Australia's best swimmer of the past three years.
"I really struggled with motivation and wondered if I wanted to go on. But then I thought 'You can't retire. You just won five medals?.' I just thought I can't stop now. I have to keep going."
Controversies ate away at the team in London, but Coutts was the nation's shining light, winning a gold medal, three silvers and a bronze to join Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe as the only Australians to win five medals at one Olympic Games.
Those achievements, as well as five gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and five silvers at the world titles in Barcelona in July, have been the highlights of an extraordinary haul of 21 medals from major competitions for the 25-year-old since 2010.
Crying after being pipped in the relay, Coutts suggested, was more about her personal battle with exhaustion and nerves than being disappointed with silver.
"I guess it is hard when people say 'You only won silver, so you're only second best,' " Coutts said. "It's hard to be judged like that.
"But it's second best in the world. To do your best and come away with silver is not something to be upset about."
In fact, of her many successes since 2010, Coutts counts a bronze medal as the most important.
"Winning bronze at the Pan Pacs in the 100 fly was the start of me believing in myself," she said.
"It was my first individual international medal. I realised at that point that I could do something special in swimming."
It was also a step towards better dealing with her conflicting emotions of self doubt and fear of failure.
"When I was younger I used to get physically sick before I raced. I still get nervous.
"It's just about controlling those feelings and making the most of them. If I didn't get nervous, it would mean I didn't really care."
That's where Coutts found herself after the London Olympics. When it was all over, she was drained and considered moving on. She took two months off and loved just "being a normal person".
"I think everyone struggled a bit after London. And, I'd always thought, when I was younger, that I'd retire after those Games. But I just really love swimming. And, as hard as the training is, I love the racing."
Coutts said she might well continue on to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but didn't want to make any promises.
"Anything can happen. It's three years away," she said.