'I would never make a comeback' - Stephanie Rice

Inked on Stephanie Rice's inner forearm are the five Olympic rings, the final trace of a career bygone.

It has been three years since the three-time Olympic gold medalist walked away from the sport. While swimmers all over the world have increasingly turned coming out of retirement into almost a reflex, Rice is clear about not wanting to step on to the pool deck again.

"I would never make a comeback," Rice, who's in Bengaluru for the weekend as the TCS World 10K ambassador, tells ESPN.

"To me, it sounds crazy. I wouldn't come out of retirement just to make an Olympic team or to get free gear and clothes. I wouldn't want to risk my personal success by going from an Olympic gold medal to maybe finishing third. It's just not worth it."

Having emerged with three gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Games, Rice went into the London Olympics four years later knowing that it would be her final competitive event. A torn shoulder tendon and two surgeries, though, incapacitated her of a repeat medal finish. After a third surgery a few months later, she decided that it was finally time to move on. Rice was 24 then.

Her sudden, primary and most immediate impulse was to get away from anything that had links with her competitive career. She was left with a conflicted mind.

"I was suddenly faced with the question of who I really am as a person because I've only ever known Stephanie Rice the swimmer and athlete. But all the successes and medals are actually superficial, they don't really define me.

"Going from something you know you're good at to not knowing what to do, that limbo phase was tough. I thought I need to get away from everyone that I know, from everyone who thinks they know me and so I moved to America for a year or so and that was the best thing I ever did."

While Rice, 28, has gone on from swimming to being an entrepreneur, author and mentor to athletes among a host of other interests and engagements, Australia has ceded dominance over the pool to America.

Some of the country's prominent medal hopes like the Campbell sisters (Cate and Bronte), Emily Seebohm, Mitch Larkin, and Cameron McEvoy flopped at the Rio Games; three golds, four silvers and two bronze medals were all that Australia could manage. American swimmers meanwhile marked the team's greatest medal haul since 2000, with 16 golds and 33 medals in all.

"It was clearly about lack of mental preparation: ability to handle pressure, expectation and compete at the biggest stage," Rice says, breaking down her country's disappointing show.

"I think it turns into a snowball effect. Once one or two people who're expected to do well don't, then it hits the momentum not only within the swimming team but also in the Australian team and that's something you want to try to prevent or be able to come back from."

Articulate, sassy and vivacious, Rice, who was part of a television commentary panel in India for the Olympics last year, feels the country has to put its flippers on and fix the basics first before it can make any headway in the sport. India has never won an Olympic medal in swimming. In fact, the total number of medals India has won at the Games till date is the same as that of American swimmer Michael Phelps' individual count: 28.

"There are a lot of things that need to happen in India before the whole country can takeoff in terms of swimming.

"Without the fundamentals like facilities, programs and coaches, you'll have a lot of athletes training in Europe or US and just competing for India. That's good for one or two athletes but if you want India as a whole to start doing well in the sport you have to bring in funding. I see no reason why a country like India can't be as good as China in the sport."

Though no Indian swimmers have particularly caught her eye, the churn in Indian sport that the Rio Games brought about has not gone unnoticed.

"PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar... It's good to see some of the women coming through. It's been so much about the men, about cricket so far. This kind of female movement can inspire the next generation of girls."

For someone who thumbs the designer racks ahead of photo shoots and is highly sought on Instagram, Rice goads us to believe that away from the camera, she's actually quite goofy.

Even when reminded that the world record timings she set in both the 400 IM (4:31.46) and 200 IM (2:08.45) events at the Beijing Olympics have been long replaced by much lower, competitive figures (4:26.36 & 2:06.12 respectively) over the years, Rice is typically cheerful.

"I'm just glad that I'm not competing now."