When Tunisian swimmer Leila Dachraoui was just 15 years old, she became the youngest gold medallist at the 1987 African Games when she swam in the winning 4 x 100m medley team. More medals followed, and she became the national champion in her age category in the 100m and 200m backstroke. Her future in swimming looked bright, but by the time she reached law college at the age of 18, without the support of her Federation, juggling her study schedule with swim training proved too challenging, and she was forced to quit swimming and focus on her education.
Twenty-seven years later, having carved out a successful career as a lawyer and university professor and after raising two grown-up daughters, Leila returned to the pool and was inspired to compete again. Proving it’s never too late to follow your passion, she became a double bronze medallist at the European Masters Championship and now, at the age of 50, continues to compete internationally.
Since we could all do with some inspiration, I dropped Leila a line to learn more about her swimming background and her Masters swimming success story.
You were very successful as a junior swimmer – can you share more about this?
At 12 years old, I was selected for the Tunisian Junior National Team, and by the age of 14, I swam for the Senior National Team. I represented my country regionally from 1984 to 1990, and for over six years, I was the national champion in my age category in the 100m and 200m backstroke. I won several medals at the Maghreb Championships, Arab Championships and African Championships. I was also part of the 4 x100m medley relay team that held the Arab and African records for three years.
How did things change when you started college?
When I started law college in Tunisia in 1990, I had the upcoming Mediterranean Games to prepare for. I was only 18 years and roughly only 1.5 seconds off the Arab and African record in the 100m backstroke. I was the fastest backstroker in the team after our star female champion retired from swimming the same year. Plus, that year, the technical rules of the backstroke tumble turn came in, enabling swim times to become much faster, so I could confidently target both Arab and African records at the upcoming Games.
However, I couldn’t keep up with the heavy training (up to 10 times a week, morning and evening) while my daily lecture schedule was so spread out. Sadly, the technical staff weren’t interested in helping me, as managing a special program for me (for example, during lunchtime) would have meant extra effort and financial support. Nobody [from my swimming federation] really believed in me or cared about my swimming.
At the time, I was coming from an intense training season and on an ascending curve as an 18-year-old athlete. I had just achieved a bronze medal in the 100m and 200m backstroke in the Arab Aquatics Games, but I was mentally exhausted and physically drained. Ultimately, I chose to quit, as without a mentor, there was no one to give me the vision and belief that I could make it to the Mediterranean Games, let alone break the 100m backstroke Arab and African record. Quitting swimming was the only option as I was so young and incapable of finding a logistical solution without the support of my Federation.
So you stopped swimming, qualified as a lawyer, and became a university professor and mother. At what point did you start to swim again?
It took me 27 years to realise that racing feeling was still within me. This was triggered by my encounter in January 2017 with my now-coach, Charl Van Crous, a South African elite swimmer and a London 2012 Olympian. We’ve worked together ever since, and Charl coaches me remotely from South Africa daily. The family support from my husband and two daughters also encouraged me to return to swimming. My youngest swam competitively, and along with her sister, they’re my biggest fans!
When did you realise you wanted to compete as a Masters athlete?
I was getting ready for the French interclub swimming competition when one of the Tunisian Masters swimmers, a former national swimmer, saw me swimming at a local meet and advised me to join his club and compete at a higher level. However, I was 3 seconds off the qualifying time for the French interclub meet. The next day, I was advised by FitRepublik (one of the largest sports facilities in the UAE) to get in touch with Charl for the first time.
From our first meeting, Charl promised I would reach the qualifying target of 1:18 after a few weeks of training. He prepared an accurate and tailored training programme for me, a 44-year-old swimmer. He believed in me, my abilities and my dreams. Six weeks later, in March 2017, I was ready to race at the French Masters Championships. I was ready [to race] but mainly very excited to take part in a big swim meet 27 years after I quit! I went there on a mental high, feeling no pressure. But to my surprise, I won the 50m backstroke in the women’s 45- 49 Masters age category with an incredibly fast time of 33 seconds. I wasn’t expecting that! My time a few weeks earlier had been 37 seconds.
Two days later, I won a silver medal in the 100m backstroke with an unexpected time of 1 minute 13, which was so close to my time as a young swimmer. Finally, I finished the Championships with a bronze medal in the 200m backstroke.
How did you prepare to swim competitively again after 27 years away from the sport?
By the end of 2016, I started dreaming of competing again. So I started running and doing some TRX sessions. But it wasn’t until I met Charl in January 2017 that I started working on my fitness. First, it required a lot of endurance work. This was topped up with technical work on the modern backstroke tumble turn technique and the underwater kicks that I had to learn from scratch.
Tell us what you’ve achieved since you started competing again?
Since then, I’ve been in the top 3 in the French Masters Ranking, with several gold and silver medals each year at the winter and summer French Masters championships. I also participated in the World Masters Swimming Championships in August 2017 in Budapest, where I finished 12th in the 200m backstroke, 8th in the 100m backstroke and 5th in the 50m backstroke, which allowed me to get on a podium and receive an honorary medal.
I also swam in the European Masters Championships twice – in Slovenia in September 2018 and in Rome in September 2022, winning two bronze medals in each one of them. In addition, I raced in the Swedish Masters in April 2019 and won a bronze medal. I’ve also competed in the Tunisian Senior Nationals three times, where I was ranked around 12th.
What’s your training routine like now – can you share a typical week of training?
Usually, I swim an average of five sessions weekly and have two gym sessions on top of that. My swim sessions are between an hour and 1.5 hours. I have one or two sessions dedicated to base endurance training, one medley session and two backstroke sessions, where I focus more on sprint work.
I have two sessions at the gym with lifting and CrossFit-like workouts. I also do a lot of core work and dedicate time to stretching.
What’s it like competing as a Masters swimmer?
It’s an amazing feeling to meet people around the world who share your passion. It’s also so good to race with more confidence and belief in myself than when I was young. It’s nice to go through the journey of preparation for any big meet and feel the strength building up in my body and my mental strength as I approach the competition. I always say to Charl that he’s a magician! I have surrounded myself with such inspiring people, and that reflects in all ways in my life.
Do you have any strategies for staying calm and focused leading up to your race?
I usually start visualising my races a few weeks before the competition. During training, I also imagine myself racing in the main set. I travel to the competition a few days before and spend a lot of time alone in order to put myself in the competition mood. I start to go to bed very early weeks before, too and eat mindfully. This all helps me feel ready, and by feeling prepared, I feel calmer. I also speak kindly to myself and encourage myself a lot.
Usually, I have an online meeting with Charl a few days before the competition during taper time. Charl and I go through the work we have done, as mentally, this helps me to understand the extent of my readiness, and he gives me a lot of advice.
What has been your proudest Masters achievement so far?
I think my happiest moment was when I won the 50m backstroke at the French Masters in 2017 after 27 years away from competitive swimming. But my proudest moment is definitely my medal at the World Masters in Budapest. I’d never dreamt of getting 5th place after only 6 months of training! But overall, I think that I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved since my return to completion.
In tough times during big training blocks, or when I’m sick and can’t train, I usually go back and watch my swimming videos or look at my ranking in the French swim Masters (I’m first in the 50m and 100m backstroke this season) just to realise what I have done.
Who are you sponsored by right now?
I currently don’t have a sponsor, but I’d like one. Support from a sponsor would allow me to compete more often, which is the best way to prepare for big swim meets. It’s very tough to train and race around the world with my own finances, and there’s very little support for Masters athletes – even though young performance swimmers, and even elite swimmers, could find us inspiring.
You can follow Leila via her social media: www.instagram.com/leila_dachraoui