Caitlin McClatchey: 'I'm not in it for fame or money. I'm in just because I enjoy it'

Scottish swimmer's small frame hides huge competitive spirit, as the Australians have discovered. Simon Turnbull speaks to her
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The sign in the reception area of the Rydges Riverwalk Hotel invites guests to turn right to enter The Scottish Centre. Some 12,000 miles from home, this is the meeting place for Scotland's extended Commonwealth Games "family". On this particular morning, it is more like an Aladdin's Cave. A Caledonian Aladdin's Cave.

"It's not often you struggle to find a table long enough to fit all the medallists on," Paul Bush, chef de mission of Scotland's 2006 Commonwealth Games team, says. The long line of young men and women sitting alongside him could be mistaken for delegates at an Ali G convention. The bling around their necks is truly dazzling.

In relative terms at least, Scotland's swimming team have been the star turn of the XVIII Commonwealth Games. They have more gold medals (six) than 50m pools in their country (four). They also have three silvers and three bronzes, adding up to the highest medal haul gained by any Scottish team in any sport at any Commonwealth Games - one more than the judo players of 2002 and the athletes of 1982, the most prominent of whom just happens to be standing at the back of the room.

Allan Wells smiles and applauds as Chris Martin - the head coach of Scotland's swimmers, not to be confused with Mr Gwyneth Paltrow, of Coldplay fame - delivers his address. "It's been a fantastic week," Martin says. "Scotland almost hijacked the competition."

Indeed, there has not been an ambush quite like it in these parts since the days of Ned Kelly and his gang. At 5ft 6in and 8st 5lb, Caitlin McClatchey might seem an unlikely outlaw leader, but within the petite frame - and behind the demure, polite demeanour - beats the heart of a mighty competitor. A mightily talented one, too.

Of all the triumphs in all of the sports in Australia's second city these past 10 days, the most stunning has been that of the elfin Scot in the first final contested in the Melbourne Aquatic Centre, the women's 200m freestyle. It was supposed to have been the first of seven golds for Lisbeth "Libby" Lenton, the Queenslander who has succeeded Ian Thorpe, and before him Flipper, as Australia's most celebrated aquatic creature. To the hushed astonishment of the 10,000 expectant locals in the stands, though, the Aussie golden girl was reduced to silver.

With the fastest homecoming split in history, a blistering 29.54sec for the final 50m stretch, McClatchey, an 80-1 shot with the bookies, blew the red-hot favourite right out of the Melburnian water. "I've never even heard of her," a stunned Lenton claimed. That the Australian collected five of the 16 golds the home women's team plundered from the 19 events merely emphasised the magnitude of McClatchey's achievement.

Her winning time, 1min 57.25sec, catapulted her from 82nd to fourth place in the all-time rankings for the event. For good measure, despite suffering a cold, McClatchey then proceeded to strike gold again, overhauling England's Jo Jackson in the 400m freestyle final. At the age of 20, she had matched David Wilkie's golden Scottish double from the 1974 Games, a feat her team-mates David Carry and Gregor Tait also achieved.

She also had Nicole Livingstone, Channel Nine's poolside expert, purring about her technique. "McClatchey has a beautifully smooth stroke," the former Commonwealth 100m and 200m backstroke champion said. "It's not dissimilar to that of the great distance swimmers Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins."

"Really?" McClatchey en-quires, half-flattered, half-embarrassed but patently fully surprised. "I've not heard any of that. I've just kept my head down and focused on my swimming. To be honest, it all hasn't really sunk in yet, maybe because the Games still haven't finished. It is definitely very bewildering, but it's been very exciting."

It is clear that McClatchey has shocked even herself, despite having already made her mark at international level, winning a world championship bronze medal in the 400m freestyle in Montreal last year. "I really didn't know what to expect here," she confides. "I went in with an open mind. I just thought I'd love to get one medal and I didn't mind which colour. Just to achieve that was going to be really tough. I completely over-exceeded my expectations.

"It was a complete surprise to win the 200, because people had been bigging up the Australians, saying how formidable they were. I just couldn't believe it... and to swim such a quick time."

It is not remotely surprising that McClatchey looks so at home in the water. Her father, Jack, swam for Scotland in the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Her mother, Louise, did likewise in 1974. Her uncle, Alan McClatchey, won a 4 x 200m freestyle relay bronze medal for Britain at the 1976 Olympics. A grandfather and an aunt also swam at international level.

Caitlin was raised as an Anglo-Scot, born in Portsmouth and brought up in Northampton. She made her international debut at the 2004 Olympics, finishing fifth with the 4 x 200m freestyle team. The key stage in her devel-opment came when she returned from Athens and moved to Loughborough University, to study politics and also to perfect the mechanics of swimming.

The high-performance centre at Loughborough is one of the vital building bricks in the British swimming empire that Bill Sweetenham has painstakingly built since he was appointed performance director in the wake of the blank drawn by Britain's swimmers at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

For the past two years there, McClatchey has been developing under the expert guidance of Ben Titley, one of Sweetenham's trusted lieutenants. Titley's training group also includes Mel Marshall, who has gathered an English record six medals in Melbourne, Liam Tancock, who won gold for England in the 100m backstroke, and James Gibson, who took silver for England in the 200m breaststroke.

Behind the headlines of underachievers levelling accusations of bullying (specifically the stripping of television aerials from swimmers' rooms and the imposition of strict diets at training camps), Sweetenham has quietly gone about replicat-ing the structure of the Australian swimming system in Britain - to such a successful degree that British swimmers took 15 golds (to Australia's 17) in the pool and Glenn Tasker, the chief executive of Australian Swimming, declared his intention to woo the Aussie guru back when his contract in Britain expires after the Beijing Olympics.

"Each head coach has a different style and each one works for them," McClatchey says when asked to compare Martin, the American in charge of the Scots in Melbourne, with Sweetenham, who has been here officially in an observational role. "They've both got the balance right between making the swimmer happy and making sure the swimmer swims well."

It remains to be seen whether life will change for Scotland's golden girl when she returns home. It ought to, profile-wise at least. For all the talk here about agents and sponsors, though, the likelihood is that she will slip back into a routine of scant public recognition - unless, possibly, BBC Television choose to ride the wave of success in Melbourne and make swimming one of their mainstream sports.

"I've not really prepared myself for fame or anything like that," McClatchey says, "because in Britain swimming isn't a major sport. I'd love to help raise the profile of the sport, but I'm not in it to make money or to get any fame. I'm just in it because I enjoy it. It's not a sport that you can make a lot of money out of in Britain. Maybe if you were in Australia or America.

"I see myself as a student rather than a professional athlete. I try to keep a balance in my life, between my education, my social life and my swimming. If you just focus on the swimming it would be easy to get a bit too intense about it."

As part of the balancing act in Melbourne, McClatchey has opened some of her course books. "My course work at the moment is the historical background to the European Union," she says. Her next major examination in the pool will also be on the European front - at the Continental championships in Budapest in July, when the double Commonwealth champion is scheduled to face Laure Manaudou, the world and Olympic 400m freestyle champion from France. "It would be good to swim fast there and kind of frighten her ahead of the worlds and Olympics," McClatchey confesses.

The "worlds" are the 2007 World Championships, which will bring McClatchey back to Melbourne for a rematch with Lenton in a pool specially constructed in the Rod Laver Arena. The Olympics the following year will take her to China and Beijing, which is the principal reason why she is competing in the World Short-Course Championships in Shanghai from 5 to 9 April. "I'm not a great short-course swimmer," she says. "I want to go there to feel the culture with 2008 in mind."

For the second Olympics in succession, it seems, Britain's golden hopes could well be pinned on a wafer-thin blonde from Loughborough. There might even be two of them - if Paula Radcliffe can steer clear of illness and injury this time.

LIFE & TIMES

NAME: Caitlin McClatchey.

BORN: 28 November 1985, Portsmouth.

CLUB: Loughborough University.

COACH: Ben Titley.

2006 COMMONWEALTH GAMES: Gold in 200m freestyle (in 1min 57.25sec, a Scottish, British and Games record); gold in 400m freestyle (4:07.69, 0.01sec short of Sarah Hardcastle's Games record); seventh in 4 x 100m medley relay.

OTHER MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS: 2005 Worlds, Montreal: bronze in 400m freestyle (4:07.25, a British record); fourth in 4 x 200m freestyle relay. 2005 World Student Games, Istanbul: fractured arm while running at poolside. 2004 Olympics, Athens: fifth in 4 x 200 freestyle relay.

Comments