Night lenses changed my life | Chris Walker-Hebborn | Olympic swimmer
Q. I’m really looking forward to this interview with Chris. Chris was the 100m backstroke gold medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and a silver medallist as part of the Medley team at the 2016 Olympics. I remember watching the Olympics race, which was iconic as Phelps’ last Olympic race, sadly putting Chris and his team into silver. So I need to start by asking you about that race Chris, Phelps’s last race, but you had a really good team – what was the atmosphere like?
A. It was incredible to say the least. Last race of the meet and the stadium was packed. It was always going to be a big one and it was always going to be chaos. You can’t describe it. It was a super tough race and they pipped us into second.
Q. You’ve had some highlights in your career, the Commonwealth gold is one of them. How was that as a race?
A. People always ask what was my favourite memory. It has to be 2014. It was my first gold medal. I had a pretty prolific junior career, but never quite cut the mustard in the seniors. To come away with a couple of golds – and a record that still stands today which I’m very proud of – and then to back it up at the Europeans with a couple more golds, that was arguably my favourite year of my career. Even though the Olympic medal was pretty cool, it was still a silver!
Q. What was lovely was that I looked back at that race prior to this interview and the commentator didn’t expect you to come through, but then you came through …
A. The same commentators, whether it was Helen Skelton, Steve Parrish or Sharon Davis, they follow your whole career, the same people you talk to year in year out, whether you have a good or bad race … I remember talking to Sharon Davis afterwards and she said ‘finally!’ … and I said “tell me about it!!”. It then went from strength to strength. To have the best years of my career at the end of my career is testament to never giving up.
Q. What age did you get into swimming?
A. Early, as my parents always wanted me to swim as part of a life skill. I was very sporty and did loads of sports, but swimming I was just better at. For those that know, swimming takes up a lot of time for very little racing. Age 15 I went to the nationals. Every year they took 6 lads to Australia on the Offshore Programme, a scholarship programme for two years. I was nowhere near top six at the time, but a lot of the lads didn’t want to leave home at that age. My mum said “you can’t say no”. I went to Australia for two years and that’s when I became European Junior Champ and World Junior Champ, and I came out of nowhere.
Q. We’re talking about night lenses, which brings us onto your eyesight. At 15 or 16, was your eyesight deteriorating and was it affecting you?
A. I always knew my eyesight wasn’t great, but refusing to wear glasses I became accustomed to having poor sight. I had to squint a little bit. It became apparent that it wasn’t good enough when I started to learn to drive. Not being able to see road signs or number plates was the catalyst to me getting an eye test. I realised I needed to wear glasses, but I didn’t like glasses. Obviously I couldn’t swim in glasses, so it was a knock on effect which eventually ended up with me wearing night lenses.
Q. Did you go into day contact lenses first? Did you ever use prescription goggles?
A. Prescription goggles have been around for a while, but they weren’t very sexy, attractive or cool. I certainly wasn’t going to race in a pair as I was very conscious of my appearance, especially when you’re on TV, so that definitely wasn’t an option. Obviously you couldn’t wear glasses, so the only option was day lenses. They weren’t ideal as anyone who swims with lenses knows, they are going to fall out, fold, or fall under your eyelid. It wasn’t practical. Training in them wasn’t a thing. But they did the job. I’d pop them in just before my race to give me the ability to see the scoreboards and the flags, but it wasn’t the best solution for me. A couple of times I lost one, or would race with only one eye in, which didn’t help.
Q. A lot of the top athletes we talk to say to hit gold, or to win a match, they need to get everything right on the day, to cross all the TS and dot the i’s to hit peak performance. Everything has to be perfect, as you’re competing against the best in the world. Did you have any times with your contact lenses when you had a problem just before the race which took you out of the zone, or during the race which affected your performance?
A. Ultimately if I had a problem I could take them out. However, to perform my best race, I need a stress free environment. I have 52/53 seconds to prove a point, and the last thing I want to panic about are my lenses. There were a couple of bad occasions I can remember, lucky enough not on the World or Olympic stage. One memorable one was when I was competing in France. It was outdoors, which is always a bit more difficult. For the life of me I couldn’t get my lenses in before the race, and I’m just messing with them and stressing. I’m in the final of the 100 backstroke, Camille Lacourt was there, the world champion at the time. I’m on his home turf and I’m looking to compete, to hold my own and to prove a point I guess. In the end I just took them out and raced without them in. That’s not what you need standing up to the blocks. I didn’t race that well. I refused to turn round to look at the boards because I knew I’d come second and that some people would be taking photos, so I didn’t want people to see me squinting in them!
A. Fortunately for a backstroker we don’t have a lot of velocity coming in from the blocks, so I was never prone to goggles sliding down my face or around my neck. Once, however, in the semi-final of the European championships, I came up from a tumble turn, was naturally blinking and I just caught one of my lenses. It folded in my eye and I couldn’t unfold it. Luckily I got through to the finals and went on to have a really good European championships. These are the little annoyances with day lenses and swimming you could really do without.
Q. Which brings us on to night lenses of course. You put your lenses in at night, take them out in the morning and have perfect sight without the need for glasses or contact lenses, which is ideal for swimming of course. The obvious question using hindsight would be that if you wound back the clock back to when you were 15 or 16, if you had been given the option of night lenses, would that have been a no brainer for you? Do you think they would have made a difference over the course of your career at all?
A. It definitely would have made life easier. Night lenses are a game changer. Wearing glasses is an annoyance. It’s an annoyance having to wear something all the time to have an acceptable level of vision. It’s definitely something I would have done sooner. I couldn’t imagine my life without them now. I haven’t worn glasses in five or six years, and I have no intention of putting on a pair anytime soon. Night lenses are a great bit of equipment.
Q. You’re an active dad now, with an active life, do you find that they have a benefit outside of your sport?
A. Yeah definitely. The fact that I don’t need to put on a pair of glasses to drive for my insurance to be valid is great. I’m not saying glasses are bad, some people suit glasses, but I’m just not one of those guys. Going to the park and knowing that if my daughter trekked off I would know which one is my daughter, and they are not all burry fuzzy lines helps too! It’s the small things you don’t appreciate until you make the change. I’m used to having perfect vision every moment of every day of my life. It’s not something now that I could ever go without. You become accustomed to it.
Q. Have you ever considered laser surgery?
A. Yes. Towards the back end of my career when training was winding down and I wanted to retire on my terms. I had that luxury. I thought now was the time to ask about laser surgery. I suffer from lazy eye, and so was unable to have it. That’s when these lenses were suggested. And now I couldn’t imagine life without them.
Q. Why would you recommend night lenses for young talented short-sighted swimmers out there?
A. It’s definitely something to get into younger. It’s not a regret for me, as it wasn’t a choice that I had. It could help change the ride of your career, little things that you don’t have to worry about. As vain as it is – photos on the podium, when you’re looking at yourself on the screen, or trying to clock your time and not having to wait to ask your coach what your time was. The amount of times I had to ask my coach what my time was because I didn’t know! I’d get out the pool and have to do a media interview not knowing whether I’d done a PB, season’s best, world record – so yes, just the little things that would make the journey so much smoother. The biggest thing is that my eyes haven’t deteriorated in six years. I’m still sitting at the same prescription from six years ago. I just a get a new set of lenses every year. It couldn’t be easier.
Q. You said the words ‘game changer’ earlier. We hear that in many interviews with sportspeople talking about night lenses, mainly as it’s now a viable alternative to the final resort for many of opting for laser eye surgery. Laser surgery isn’t a permanent solution, it carries risk, can leave you with annoying sight issues like floaters that might affect your mindset and performance – but mainly for elite sportspeople, it means time away from training and competing. Do you think night lenses could be game changers for short-sighted elite athletes and sports people?
A. 100%. It avoids time out of the water and laser eye surgery is pretty invasive. I’ve not heard anyone who hasn’t struggled for at least a week afterwards. A lot of us, especially in swimming, can’t afford to take time out of the water. Three sessions out and we were classed as unfit or we’d lost touch with the water. I know it sounds dramatic, but at that level it really is that pernickety. To have something viable, feasible, and all of those things, I don’t see how it’s not a game changer. I’m not knocking laser eye surgery, but my best mate’s dad is on his third round, and I have no intention of going through all that.
Q. They often say night lenses are optometry’s answer to laser eye surgery … thank you so much for your time and this interview. It has been great watching your career. And it was great, in preparation for this interview, to watch your two big epic races again.
A. Thank you.
After we finished the interview Chris and I were chatting and I asked him about the race with the French champion – I’ve read a few times about how important confidence and portraying confidence to your competitors was. Adam Peaty often says how he comes to the blocks with a certainty that he has trained harder and is better than everyone else in the race, a confidence that serves him well. Usain Bolt, Phelps … a few of the legends arguably won races before they even started based on who they were, their reputation and swagger. Chris gave a great and really interesting reply:
Chris: I guess to me, having poor sight, was like Superman’s kryptonite. With his glasses on he was Clark Kent, normal, weak, beatable … take them off, and he was Superman. When I was younger, I did have a certain amount of arrogance about my ability that everyone needs at the top level to put in a confident, winning performance. I didn’t want to walk into the room with a bit of swagger, only to be seen scrabbling around trying to put a contact lens in to see! A clear weakness. This is the same for all elite sportspeople. To win you need to 100% believe that you’re the best in the room, and you need to give off that vibe to your competitors. Night lenses meant that I never had to have, or to show, weakness. They help make me Superman! 😊
WATCH | Chris Walker-Hebborn
Watch this interview in full, filmed on Zoom.