Sunday, 17 August 2014

XX Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014

Scotland's third home Commonwealth Games are now well and truly over however, despite this, I'd like to relive some of the action by sharing with you a few of my personal highlights from the pool. Unfortunately I missed a large majority of the excitement due to training, travelling and just being generally busy however that of it that I did manage to watch was action-packed and had a profound effect with regard to inspiring me as an athlete myself.

Tollcross International Swimming Centre witnessed an abundance of spectacular performances ranging from young talent to veteran success. Take Erraid Davies, for example. This 13-year-old swimmer from the Shetland Islands became the youngest ever medallist at a Commonwealth Games after taking bronze in the 100m para-breaststroke SB9 final. Truly incredible!

I'll start with the most highly anticipated race as far as the Scots were concerned - the men's 200m breaststroke. Excessive amounts of pressure were put on the poster-boy, Michael Jamieson, in the build up to the Games to not only win what they had anticipated to be Team Scotland's first gold medal of the Games but to also claim the world record that he had so desperately wanted.

Furthermore, it wasn't just an external load that Michael had to carry but also the nagging that comes from within. If I have one major downfall when it comes to competing, this is it. The internal desire to succeed is compounded by the external pressures which can thus prove to be much too great. I know for a fact that this mentality cannot be shifted, no matter how hard you try.

One thing that’s held me back over the past few years has been putting too much pressure on myself...

This was taken from an article written by the man himself following his success at the 2012 Olympic Games held in London. Prior to the Games, Jamieson was much less of a prominent figure to the public eye and so there was no expectation for him to deliver the phenomenal medal-winning performance that he did; after all, the 26-year-old Glaswegian had never even swum in an Olympic final before that evening.

As it happens, Jamieson has repeatedly stated that he thrives off this type of situation - rather than buckling under it - and relished the sense of responsibility.

I can safely say it wasn't the pressure. I was quite calm and comfortable in that environment. I was happy to try to use that support and the crowd to spur me on.

As much as Ross Murdoch put in both a stunning heat and final swim, totally deserving to win the Commonwealth title, you've got to feel for the Olympic silver medallist. He was beaten to the finish by the new kid on the block, so to speak, making him Commonwealth silver medallist, with GB teammate Andrew Willis touching in third. Michael has since admitted that he was "a little bit shocked" by Murdoch's gold medal-winning time but praised the 20-year-old as a world-class swimmer.

I didn't think he was capable of swimming 2:07. But he has done and it was a brilliant performance.

This is, supposedly, the first time that Michael's been in a position where he hasn't got the result he wanted but - I'm sure you'll all agree - he hasn't let anybody down. Far from it. It is, however, this overriding sense of despair that I feel following a substandard performance.

It's only natural for your instant reaction to be like you felt you let people down.

Somewhat hypocritically, I can never seem to understand how it can be that I haven't let anyone down given the extreme sacrifices that my family have made (and continue to make) in order to allow me to swim. Obviously, I don't compete at anywhere near the level that these swimmers do so, if anything, in my eyes Jamieson has become even more of an inspiration.

Now, back to the first evening of racing, it was in fact Hannah Miley who became the first Scot to win Commonwealth gold in a Scottish pool, claiming the women's 400m individual medley title and obliterating her own Commonwealth record in the process. An awesome battle between herself and Team England's Aimee Willmott materialised which saw Miley emerge victorious with 50 metres of the 4:31.76 race remaining.

She most certainly lived up to the nickname of 'Smiley Miley' in the period following the dramatic turn of events. Willmott was visibly distraught (and quite understandably so, having lead for such a large majority of the race) however she wasn't the only Team England swimmer who had to settle for second place that evening.

Siobhan-Marie O'Connor, too, narrowly missed out on an expeditious gold medal courtesy of Emma McKeon's assertive back seventy-five metres in the women's 200m freestyle final. However, it has to be said that the first fifty metres of O'Connor's race were absolutely outstanding, especially the transition from 0-25. For any young, aspiring swimmers among you, that is what your coach means by laying it down from the start!

The 18-year-old swimmer from Bath competed in two of the three women's finals on the first day of racing and claimed silver in both, meaning that Siobhan-Marie ended her Games with a medal to show for her exceptional efforts in each and every event that she competed in - one gold, four silvers and a bronze.

The following evening, once again, Team England's rising star missed out on gold by a hair's breadth, this time to Canada's Katerine Savard in the women's 100m butterfly. And the margin of defeat was even smaller than before, amounting to a mere 0.05 seconds. That may not seem like much of a difference but, trust me, in swimming especially, every hundredth counts.

As a matter of fact, it was by this amount [0.01 seconds] that Michael Phelps was victorious over Serbia's US-born Milorad Čavić in the men's 100m butterfly, Beijing 2008. Do you remember the massive upset it so very nearly caused? Actually, how could you possibly forget?

It is, in fact, exactly six years to the day that the American superhuman surpassed Mark Spitz's record of winning seven gold medals at a single Olympic Games, making him the greatest Olympian of all time. I'm at a loss for words. Not only has the true scope of Michael's achievement just begun to sink in, I'm completely dumbfounded by how long ago that particular piece of history was made!

As misfortune would have it, O'Connor's gold medal-winning final of Sunday 27th was scheduled to get under way at around 20:15 - precisely the same time that we would be confined to the interior of our worn-out wheels and partway the tedious car journey home from training, would you believe! Luckily, the car radio - one of the few items of technology that continues to function as designed inside our time-worn Peugeot - allowed for us to listen to the next best alternative.

BBC Radio 5 Live is, in some respects, just as enjoyable as watching the action unfold on television because it allows you to use your imagination in creating a mental image however it doesn't quite match experiencing the excitement first-hand. The sense of deflation that follows is comparable to being given an RC toy for Christmas and then reading 'batteries not included,' that is, before discovering that the house is completely devoid of the required electrochemical devices.

After digging into the BBC iPlayer archives only recently, it transpires that the women's 200m individual medley final was, in fact, just as exciting as it had sounded on that downbeat Sunday evening. Siobhan-Marie O'Connor finished with an excess of more than two seconds between herself and Australian rival Alicia Coutts, the clear water making her dominance over the rest of the field appear all the more convincing. Her time of 2:08.21 not only ranks O'Connor as the fastest woman in the world this year but also in British history, not to mention the Commonwealth record!

As well as the actual race, I also caught up on the ceremony which presented the three fastest female 200 IM swimmers in the Commonwealth with their medals. O'Connor absorbed every minute of it, from stepping onto the top of the podium to parading around the poolside, taking great pleasure in her moment in the spotlight. The cheers she received as the wooden structure elevated her above all else and the sense of national pride evoked with Jerusalem resonating throughout the venue, Siobhan-Marie O'Connor took it all in.

It was clearly evident how much the whole experience meant to both Siobhan and her family when they were able to share a minute during the procession that followed the presentation. The look on her face throughout the whole customary celebration of achievement was one that said 'my wildest childhood dreams are being made into a reality this evening.' The gold medal couldn't have gone to a more worthy athlete.

It was also during the above ceremony that BBC commentators Andy Jameson and Adrian Moorhouse hit the nail on the head when talking about the pressure of expectation that athletes can subject themselves to.
These are, by the way, two of my favourite voices of live swimming coverage, especially when the comical excitement of professionalism is too much for them to contain.

I'll take the 2013 World Swimming Championships, held in Barcelona, as my first example. Here the pair were forced to take a moment in order to regain their composure after a fleeting wave of the giggles got the better of their sportive dispositions and swiftly escalated into a full-blown fit of laughter.

These former Commonwealth champions are among the most knowledgeable in the trade but, in the true spirit of the 'Friendly Games,' the engaging double act spared us the technicalities of the sport as they were far too frequently occupied by winding up the Australians! I think it's now regarded as a pastime of theirs, rather than just simply a spot of good-humoured banter.

The men's 100m breaststroke was another of the events that I was unable to watch but, as far as I can tell, the state of affairs only deteriorated for Michael Jamieson. It took a great deal of determination on his part to stand up and race again however he failed to even make the finals.

In an interview with the BBC following his disappointing performance, Jamieson said something that I'm sure all swimmers can relate to. It's a dead cert in my case.

I am not swimming the times I want and no swimmer enjoys not swimming their best.

On top of the great depth in men's British breaststroke, we also have a strong team of backstrokers. The legend that is James Goddard has now retired (another person I spent a lengthy amount of time chatting to in Manchester) however Chris Walker-Hebborn and the more than experienced Liam Tancock both did us extremely proud. This was especially the case following the men's 100m backstroke final in which Walker-Hebborn featured at the top of the podium whilst Tancock placed joint third with Australia's Josh Beaver. I was dubious about whether 'The Tank' would be able to hold on to the bronze but he returned with immense strength to start his Games off with a bang! I also think it's fair to say that he had a great time being on the podium. At least, that's what the photographs suggest.

Tancock repeated this achievement in the men's 50m backstroke, an event in which he set the current world record of 24.04 at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, placing third behind two Aussies (Treffers and Larkin respectively). The finish was far too close to call and, as a result, medals were spread between lanes 2 to 7. You could practically hear the amazement in Jameson's voice; it was priceless!

Almost as though this isn't admirable enough already, Liam has only recently returned to competition from injury - a hip problem which led to severe discomfort in his shoulder - obviously meaning that he was a fair way from being in peak condition upon arriving at the athletes' village. So, just in case he's reading this... BOOM! I'm sorry, I had to. Besides, Adrian Moorhouse said it himself in, dare I say, the classic Adrian Moorhouse fashion not a moment too soon (Jameson probably remained in too much of a state of shock to speak).

He has two bronze medals now, coming back off that injury. What a tough, tough guy he is.

I'm not quite sure where it went wrong for Walker-Hebborn, having qualified for the final ahead of both Tancock and Larkin, but his result in the 50m backstroke was a considerable step-down from his incredible gold medal winning performance two days previous. No different to what a lot of us do in our day-to-day lives, the member of the team most well-known for his neat array of tattoos turned to Twitter when looking to offload some of the sorrow, clearly dispirited by his resignation from the podium. You hear it on television all the time, 4th is the worst position to place.

Nevertheless, the 24-year-old University of Bath-based swimmer corrected himself by piloting Team England to victory in the men's 4 x 100m medley relay. The remaining 300 metres were completed by the three Adams of the team (Peaty, Barrett and Brown) each with their own individual flair of excellence. If there were a gold medal for the best celebration, they would have won that too - it was absolutely brilliant!

This was the final event of the Games as far as swimming was concerned and I saw it to rather perfectly sum up Team England's week in the pool; writing the event off by claiming the final swimming gold medal was the best possible conclusion. It must have also resulted in a massive confidence-boost for the whole team ahead of this coming week's European Championships. If anything, I'm sure it gave Jameson and Moorhouse substance for a new wave of taunts to fire in Australia's direction!

If I were to highlight one performance it would have to be the final ten-fifteen metres of Peaty's leg. Don't get me wrong, the triumph was by all means a team effort however this section of the relay was complete class, especially since the City of Derby swimmer - coached by Melanie Marshall - had turned second to Christian Sprenger of Australia at the 150 metre mark.

I believe Rebecca Adlington actually cried on live television when Adam Peaty won his first gold medal of the Games. Which reminds me; whilst on the topic of crying, I have a rather fitting anecdote which begins shortly prior to Adlington's participation in the women's 800m freestyle final at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Whilst queueing to enter the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park facility, we came across the double Olympic champion's parents and sister. Naturally, we started talking and then exchanged wishes of luck as the seemingly impossible search for our heavenly elevated seat numbers began. I must say, the aesthetics of the London Aquatics Centre following its drastic transformation have been greatly improved with the aerial curvature of the 'wings' giving a sense of sleek brilliance.

Rebecca was unfortunately unable to defend her title but yet the atmosphere created by the home-crowd inside the 'stingray' was electric! Despite being beaten by teenage sensation Katie Ledecky, the chorus of 'Becky! Duh duh duh. Becky! Duh duh duh,' during the medal ceremony is a resonance that I'll never forget. It very nearly brought a tear to my eye. It certainly did in Becky's case. Since that day I've also pondered on the question of whether the chant was audible on television coverage...

Jazz Carlin's win in this very same event, the women's 800m freestyle, has been a long time coming. I distinctly remember the pink physio tape she wore whilst competing in Manchester five years ago and, since her notably historic 2010 Games, many had written her off due to recurring bouts of both tonsillitis and glandular fever disrupting progress. Five years, by the way, has gone extremely quickly! On top of this, Carlin also managed to pick up a silver medal in the women's 400m freestyle to add to the well-earned gold that she won less than twenty-four hours beforehand.

Despite being split up into our own individual nations I have been more than pleased to see a number our fellow Brits dominating, looking exceedingly strong for Rio 2016. This holds true for the majority of swimmers who competed at the Games but is especially relevant to Team Wales' Carlin. I can't describe how delighted I was for her.

At the end of the fourth evening of swimming, the Scottish quartet of Wallace, Milne, Scott and Renwick provided us with fascinating entertainment in an event that can sometimes fail to captive the common viewer's attention due to its nature to reach a state of equilibrium. Throughout the duration of men's 4 x 200m freestyle relay there was more than one point at which I thought the Australian team would be pulled in by the chasers but it was very much a full-on race between the three leading nations to contest the medals.

Renwick was unable to reproduce his form in the individual event but demonstrated the unique skill of a former Commonwealth champion by anchoring his team to a podium finish. This wasn't before having a valiant effort at attempting to eat into Fraser-Holmes' lead and, talking to Sharron Davies in one of her renowned post-race interviews, the Scotsmen showed just how much it meant to collectively win silver. Succeeding as a team is perhaps even more of a remarkable and unique achievement than doing so individually.

Sadly, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, has made it clear that he intends to send an independent team to Rio 2016 if Scotland vote Yes in the upcoming Independence Referendum. To be quite frank, for the most part, politics bores the hell out of me however I would be immensely upset if that were the case.

Francesca Halsall's feat of claiming both the women's 50m freestyle and butterfly titles was well-deserved after she too, like many others, had an awfully disappointing home Olympics in 2012. Her time of 25.2 seconds in the women's 50m butterfly final not only broke the existing British and Commonwealth records but also made her the first woman to complete a Commonwealth Games sprint double.

Plymouth Leander's Ben Proud, coached by Jon Rudd, completed the very same accomplishment as Halsall, minus the abundance of Commonwealth records. That isn't to belittle the London-born sprinter's success - he claimed two Commonwealth records of his own - but instead gives a sense of how much of an imposing figure Francesca Halsall was at these Games. In fact, this vivacious member of Team England set a new Commonwealth record in every stage of these two events, replacing the previous from heats to semi-finals and then again in the medal races.

The heartache that followed in the wake of London 2012 compounded the fact that Halsall suffered from 'Delhi Belly' whilst competing at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and just goes to show that she is a true warrior. She has since been training in Loughborough under former world champion, James Gibson's, sprint programme, the very same James Gibson who coached French sprinter Florent Manaudou to first-place in the men's 50m freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Games. To put it in perspective, the 50m freestyle Olympic champion is widely regarded as Usain Bolt's swimming equivalent.

As it happens, I actually trained with another of Gibbo's sprinters when we were both still members of our local club. Andrew Weatheritt has long since been one of my inspirations, mainly because I grew up idolising the older swimmers and, at 6ft 5, he's quite literally a figure to look up to. Just as a young children learn through imitation, I can perfectly recall the process through which I altered the way I wore my hat-goggle combo after observing the now-British record holder competing at club championships.

Andy has excelled considerably in recent years, finishing this year's British Gas National Championships with one title to his name and a silver medal to add to the collection as well. To whom did he come second? Only the current 50m freestyle Commonwealth champion! Even now I can remember the meet at which Andy first qualified for nationals. Moreover, I can recall Andrew's dad, Tim, promising his son the latest pair of Speedo LZR Racer legskins as an incentive for him to swim the required time. Obviously, the purchase relied on one condition.

This may be a swimming-orientated blog but it wasn't just in the aquatics centre that potential Team GB athletes triumphed. They've put in an all-round brilliant performance in the majority of sports featured in the programme, however the Aussies undoubtedly continue to rule the pool; much to Ian Thorpe's delight, I must add.

Despite the pinnacle of British Cycling arguably being their complete supremacy at the Beijing Olympics, this is another sport that fascinates me to watch. My two performances of note were Laura Trott's win in the women's 25 km points race and Jason Kenny's masterful return from the repêchage to claim second place in the men's individual sprint.

Australia may have seemingly controlled the medal table inside the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome however there were plenty of Brits making an appearance on the podium too. Take the aforementioned women's points race, for example. Placing second to Team England's Laura Trott was Elinor Barker of Team Wales whilst the home nation's Katie Archibald claimed the bronze medal. Isn't that nice?

So, after eleven days of the finest sporting action and a grand total of 824 medals up for contention, it was Team England who came out on top of the [medal] table - a first since 1986. Oh, and guess what? The largest proportion of our nation's medals were won in the swimming pool, with ten of the twenty-eight contributing to the tally of fifty-eight gold medals. Although that's nowhere near as impressive as Australia's sum of fifty-seven swimming medals, it greatly exceeded British Swimming's original target.

In relation to the numbers at Glasgow, a much smaller selection of our nation's swimmers are now gearing up towards competing at the 32nd LEN European Swimming Championships, held in Berlin, which commence in what is now a matter of hours. Here's to hoping that they'll recreate - or, with the form showed in Glasgow, maybe even exceed - the successes of the twice previous 2010 European Championships held in Budapest.

The championship's open water events have already come to a close but did witness Great Britain's Daniel Fogg claim a preliminary gold medal in the men's 5km race to set Team GB off on the same foot as they ended on in Glasgow. Jack Burnell, 21-year-old distance swimmer based at Loughborough ITC, was unfortunate enough to miss out on a medal in the men's 10km race by a mere 3.5 seconds, placing 6th overall.

I really think Glasgow's going to spur a lot of us on.

These are the words of Jazz Carlin on the home nations' recent success and, to be honest, I couldn't agree more. Now that our athletes are in the mindset of racing to win, it will be very interesting to see how they fare against the best in Europe. They will most certainly be looking to add to the plentiful amount of titles won in Glasgow. I'm expecting them put put on a good show!

There are, however, a number of familiar names who won't be making an appearance - Hannah Miley, Michael Jamieson and Dan Wallace are among those who will be absent in Germany. Nonetheless, I have faith in the remaining members of the squad to live up to head coach Bill Furniss' challenge of maintaining high standards in order to end the season on a high.

It may be hard to believe but I've actually been forced to drastically shorten this recount for fear of losing all my readers to weariness. I could have happily written about each individual British athlete in generous amounts of detail but it just wasn't possible. I hope to have done them all justice as, ultimately, the underlying message that I've attempted to get across is that each and every one of the athletes I've named is an inspiration in their own right. Even those who aren't identified specifically, for that matter, will have almost certainly made a difference at some point.

Jamieson said it himself in the article that I made reference to earlier - "I hope that acts as some sort of inspiration." I'd like to think that one of my (many) sporting heroes would be pleased to know that, yes, it most certainly does. And I suppose this is one of the several reasons why I'd like to succeed at becoming a prominent figure - so I can act as a stimulus for the next generation of great athletes, similar to the way that so many have done for me.

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