Somewhere among Lauren Boyle's possessions are two coveted pieces of paper.
Adorned with the Olympic rings, both signify pride, years of hard work and the achievement of becoming one of the best athletes in world sport - an Olympic finalist.
But one of those pieces of paper is also something of an annoyance.
"Since I was little, I've dreamt of an Olympic medal. Every time I blew out the candles on a birthday cake . . . you know? I've had times since the Olympics where I've thought ‘oh, man . . .' It's kind of hard to come fourth. It's kind of a crappy position," Boyle says of the diploma that marks her placing in the final of the women's 800m freestyle in London.
"But it can really eat away at you if you're not careful."
The frustration of fourth is a story well-spun. It's even said to have "destroyed" some athletes.
But in the 107 days since the 800m freestyle final of London 2012, Boyle has been determined to respect the result as a benchmark, a reflection of how far she has come, and, how much further she can go.
Next month's world short course championships in Istanbul, Turkey, present the first truly meaningful races since hitting the touchpad at the London Aquatics Centre in August, and the aim is simple: Keep building on two years of significant improvement - and turn pieces of paper into pieces of metal.
"I'm quite a private person, I'm very careful when I'm talking about upcoming goals because I know what the New Zealand media is like. If you say what you want to achieve, and you don't do it, people will thrash you and they can be so mean about it," she said.
"I want to keep improving and it would be great to do better than I did at the Olympics, so I guess that means being on the podium.
"I'm still really happy with how I went but my life hasn't changed much since the Olympics. I still want to keep swimming because I haven't broken into that area of excellence where you see concrete rewards for your success.
"Often after an Olympics people take a break and don't compete really hard until the next year. I'm hoping immersing myself in that environment again soon after will help.
"The whole experience of a second Games, and as an individual, not just in relays, has made me wiser and I need to keep racing in an environment where I'm going to be challenged. That's why these world championships are so important."
By her own admission, pre-race confidence has been a historical sticking point. But, in the two years since 2010's return to New Zealand from four and a half years at the University of California, Berkeley, Boyle has become a world player in middle-to-long-distance freestyle.
After finishing just over two seconds behind Great Britain's 2008 Olympic champion and 800m world record holder Rebecca Adlington for bronze in London, in addition to also making this year's 400m Olympic final, results are starting to translate into a stronger sense of self-belief.
"Two years ago winning an Olympic medal was almost unrealistic, I just had so much to make up. I had to take something like 22 seconds off my 800m time just to be within striking distance of the podium," Boyle said.
"In hindsight, seeing people that I thought were unbeatable before the 800m final, these people who I might see as superheroes, aren't actually any different to me.
"I guess everybody wishes this, but I wish I'd known what the result in London could have been. "I do think that I'm capable now."
After a six-day, post-London holiday (which still involved daily training) Boyle slotted straight back into an 85km-a-week regime in Auckland. And in a sport which demands such fierce commitment, most importantly, Boyle says she's enjoying "the addiction" of seeing how far she can push herself. "I never want to sleep in, I get up around 6 o'clock, drive to the pool and do some kind of pre-swim workout. We swim for two hours, go straight down to the gym and lift weights for another hour," she said.
"Then I'll snack, drive home, and eat again before afternoon training where it's back to swimming for a couple of hours.
"I do about six or seven kilometres each session, so some days we do up to 14km. That's about the equivalent of one and a half marathons a day. Swimming's about four times the translation of land work. That's five days a week. On a Saturday we swim once in the morning and on a Sunday we go for a 2km swim by ourselves, whether in the pool or open water, just to prep for the week ahead.
"I don't have a day without exercise and I try and make sure I'm asleep by 10pm. I really try not to plan doing anything after swimming at night. I need to just come home, eat and go to bed.
"If I'm out at night, then I'm just really tired the next day and I feel a bit guilty about it.
"I don't really like to say that it's a sacrifice, it's more of a choice. I'm really lucky to have this lifestyle, a group of supportive friends and I love that I get to train pretty much as my full-time job.
"Pushing yourself every day and testing your limits is addictive."
During the week, Boyle's only down time is a couple of pastoral hours between training.
"I like to spend time in my vegetable garden before I go back to afternoon training. Just being outside is really important for me," she said. "We swim indoors, lift weights indoors and I do all of my other stuff indoors, so if I don't go to work in the garden I don't really go outside all day." Beyond the tough daily demands, Istanbul and next year's long-course world championships, Boyle admits the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow are firmly on the radar - while Adlington has already ruled herself out of the 800m to focus on the 200m and 400m, if she competes at all.
Adlington has also ruled out continuing her Olympic career. Boyle meanwhile, is already sketching pencil lines towards Rio 2016.
"The next two years should be really fun, and will probably fly by. There's the world championships, and after that the Commonwealth Games will be right around the corner. Rio has crossed my mind and unless something horrible happens, I'm pretty sure. It's always good to set a long-term goal.
"After the Commonwealth Games, Rio will be only two years away. Maybe it won't be so daunting to think about then. Sometimes I think about it and go ‘well, I've always wanted that Olympic medal, so . . . "'
Next month's 400m world short-course final coincides with Boyle's 25th birthday. But the wish over the cake candles is no longer about casting a childhood dream. It's become a woman's reality.
- © Fairfax NZ News