SARAH Hardcastle was just 15 years old when she stunned the swimming world by winning both a silver and bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

At that time, the freestyle star was studying at Shoebury High School.

But, while her class mates were relaxing during their summer holidays, Hardcastle was competing at the world’s ultimate sporting bonanza.

However, looking back now, she feels her young age actually gave her an advantage over her more experienced rivals.

“I think that as teenagers we believe we are invincible and that’s what I thought in the swimming pool,” said Hardcastle.

“It didn’t matter who I stood up on the blocks next to, I believed I could win and just gave it my all.

“I think my age was my advantage in a way because you don’t think much as a teenager, you just react.”

Such an attitude saw Hardcastle come second in the 400m freestyle and third over the 800m as well as ninth in the 400m individual medley.

Yet, it is not the actual races or the medals she won which provided Hardcastle with her lasting memory of those Games.

“While walking around the pool deck during the medal ceremony I saw my grandparents in the crowd and I threw my bouquet of flowers to my Grandma,” said Hardcastle “That’s something I often think and smile about now as they are no longer with us.”

Such stunning performances at such a young age immediately thrust Hardcastle in to the limelight.

But she was able to handle the hype and the headlines thanks to decathlete Daley Thompson, who won gold at the Games.

“I was good friends with Daley and remember him taking me under his wing,” recalled Hardcastle.

“He guided me through the media for the next few days while I adapted to my new life of fame.”

The following year, Hardcastle won silver at the European Championships over 800m before claiming double gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

But, after those triumphs and aged just 17, Hardcastle decided to retire from the sport.

“I had started competitive swimming really young and had been training hard for many years so to retire at 17 and try to have a normal teenage life for a few years seemed natural,” explained Hardcastle.

“My body was tired and I needed a rest. I don’t regret anything I did but at the same time you don’t know what you had until it’s gone.”

That eventually led to Hardcastle returning to the pool six years later, on the advice of her husband who felt she still could still succeed in the sport.

He proved to be right as well because in 1993, Hardcastle was a member of the British 4x200 metre relay team that took a bronze medal at the European Championship.

A year later, Hardcastle added a Commonwealth Games silver in the relay and an individual bronze before her one and only global title arrived in 1995 when she won the 800m freestyle at short-course world championships.

That helped Hardcastle qualify for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where she became the first British swimmer to qualify for an individual final in the Games since she herself had performed the feat 12 years earlier.

But, by then she was 27 and her ‘no fear’ approach had long since gone.

That lead to her finishing eighth in the 800m freestyle, ninth in the 400m and 19th in the 400m IM.

“I trained hard on my return but an older body takes longer to recover between sessions and unfortunately I was never quite good enough second time around,” said Hardcastle, who grew up in Thorpe Bay.

“I was older and had more respect of my fellow competitors and that was my downfall. “I knew what times they did and how they swam. So instead of concentrating on my own race I was drawn into theirs and was out of my rhythm which is quite annoying to think about now.”

Following those Olympics, Hardcastle retired for good and has now lived in New Zealand for the past eight years.

Over there, she works at one of Australasia’s best swimming centres running their schools programme and is kept busy by her four children.

They will all soon be coming back to London for the Olympics and Hardcastle will be appearing in the opening ceremony.

“I am really looking forward to coming back to the UK for the Olympics,” said Hardcastle, now 42.

“It’s six years since I have seen my family and to be honest I’m more excited about seeing them than the Games, but it’s all going to be excellent.”