Keri-Anne Payne is signing photographs. They are lined up on the table in front of her, next to her gold medal from the world championships. She writes quickly; Keri-Anne Payne, Keri-Anne Payne, Keri-Anne Payne. If everything goes to according to plan over the next year, it is a name that is going to become very familiar.
Two weeks ago Payne became the first Briton to qualify for the London Olympics and a world champion for the second time in the 10km open water in Shanghai. It was the second of those achievements that confirmed her as one of the best prospects of delivering a home gold, and if she clambers out of the Serpentine in 12 months' time having left the world in her wake once again it will change her life for ever. "If you have to put money on one Briton to win gold in London, put it on Payne," observed one regular on the open-water circuit.
If he is proved right Payne will become a name remembered, that is unless she decides to change it a month later when she marries David Carry, a fellow British swimmer. "The wedding is September 2012. It will be a brilliant year," asserts Payne and smiles winningly.
Rebecca Adlington will be one of the bridesmaids in Aberdeen. She and Adlington are old friends. They roomed together at the world championships in Shanghai, spending evenings puzzling over sudoku; they also provided two of Britain's three gold medals and are expected to repeat the feat next year.
"There was always going to be pressure from having won a medal in Beijing," says Payne, who took silver in the last Games. "Even if I didn't have that, being a British athlete going into a home Olympics, there's always going to be pressure on every single person who makes the team. You just have to be wise as to how you use that pressure. I know I'm going to be using it as a confidence boost, to make sure every bit of training I do this year is making sure that when I get to the Olympics I have done everything I can to enable me to swim the best race of my life."
The 23-year-old, who was born in Johannesburg but grew up in Lancashire, aims to swim in both indoor and outdoor events. She is an able pool swimmer, the British record holder at the 1500m freestyle and a Commonwealth medallist at the 400m individual medley, and will push for a place in the 800m free and the freestyle relay team come the Olympic trials next spring. But it is in the always gruelling, often brutal and occasionally dangerous open-water event that she has excelled.
It is a sport that places huge demands on the competitors. Ten kilometres is 200 lengths of an Olympic pool, except it is obviously not swum in the pool and open water makes all sorts of extra demands, physical and mental. Wind, sun, currents, waves can all take a toll.
"Indoors you have your nice lane on your own and you can swim along happily – see the bottom! Outside you have all the elements to contend with, the waves and other girls in close proximity. But that's part and parcel of the sport. If you want to do it you have to deal with it," she says.
So to cope you need to be tough? "Definitely. Half the battle is getting in the water in the first place. Never mind doing it, you have to be tough enough to get in. My second swim was full of jellyfish [in Australia], but that worked out well in the end as I've never had anything so bad since."
Once in there is plenty to contend with. The swimming can be bruising – kicking and punching is not unknown. "You have to be able to hold your own," says Payne. And it can get even worse when racing in extreme temperatures. Last year the American Fran Crippen, one of the world's leading men, died during a race in the United Arab Emirates.
"I know that my performance directors and my team are there for me and safety is the No 1 issue," says Payne. "They know where I am every single second of the race, somebody always has eyes on me. If they didn't think things were safe, they wouldn't put me in the race.
"Fran was such a determined athlete – as we all are in open-water swimming – and I know that if I got in a situation where I really should stop I probably wouldn't because of the determination we have, the grit that you have to have if you want to be the best open-water swimmer."
Conditions from course to course vary hugely, as does the water quality. During two hours in the sea, a reservoir, lake or river it is impossible to avoid swallowing mouthfuls of water, which is why almost the first thing an exhausted Payne will do after finishing a race is to reach for a can of Coke. "It's brilliant for getting your energy back up – a quick fix of sugar," she says. "And if you've swum in water you're not quite sure of the quality of, Coke kills any bacteria in the stomach, so we're never worried about being ill afterwards. You try not to swallow too much water at sea otherwise that makes you sick. But Beijing was a clean river so you could drink that without a problem. The Serpentine I guess is fairly clean but I don't think I'll be drinking the water!"
Next week Payne and Carry, an indoor freestyler who has Olympic ambitions too, will head for France and a holiday, during which she will try to avoid anything more than a cooling dip. "It's hard not to get competitive when you see someone doing a few laps – I have to say to myself 'No, get out'," she says and laughs. Her mother, Pat, sitting across the table, laughs too. Has her daughter always been competitive? "You should have seen [my children] sitting round the dinner table, counting how many peas they had on their plates," she says.
After the holiday it will be back to the Stockport Metro club and their base at Grand Central Pool near the town's railway station to resume her exhaustive training regime. Two hours of pool time in the morning, two in the afternoon, 10 sessions a week with daily gym sessions in between. All her training is indoors.
"It's just not viable in Britain to do open water because it is so cold," she explains. "I am always pushing my body to the brink of potential illness because you have to push it as far as we can so it breaks down and rebuilds itself better. That's how the training works, so you are always at risk of pushing it too far. We're conscious swimming outdoors for too long could push you over the edge. You learn that as you get more experienced – when to take time out and how far to push it. I know my body now."
It is hour after hour of relentless physical exertion; the painful loneliness of a long-distance swimmer? Not for Payne. "I love training. I love everything about it. I love going home when I'm tired knowing that what I've done that day will help towards next year.
"Before Shanghai it was a case of, 'I've not made it so I can't think about London.' I've just got back, so my mind is still pretty shattered – I'm going to need the break to recuperate and then get back in to it. Then I'll be concentrating completely on the next major competition. That's London."
Keri-Anne Payne is a Speedo-sponsored athlete. For more information head to www.speedo.co.uk
More than a sugar rush
Some open-water swimmers drink Coke after racing, both for the sugar rush and because it is said to neutralise harmful bacteria taken in with the water that has inevitably been swallowed over the 10km. Coke contains phosphoric acid, which works in the same way as the hydrochloric acid produced by the stomach to reduce risk of infection – though acid-resistant organisms such as cryptosporidium will not be killed by it. Dr Andy Scott, senior lecturer in exercise physiology at University of Portsmouth, said: "Any drink with carbohydrates after swimming is good. They help fluids cross the stomach."
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