Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

The Scottish swimmer grew up a stone’s throw from the pool where he competes this week, but he tells Robin Scott-Elliot that he relishes the high expectations that come from ‘the biggest race of my life’

Glasgow is a city that likes a slogan. “People make Glasgow” is the current fancy but the most famous came back in the dark depths of the 1980s when “Glasgow’s miles better” was accompanied by a grinning Mr Happy. Michael Jamieson was born in the city at the backend of the 1980s, and grew up a stone’s throw from the Tollcross pool where on Thursday he will dive in with a nation’s hopes weighing on his shoulders. Should he come out the other end with a gold medal hanging around his neck then Scotland will be smiling and feeling one heck of a lot better, and Jamieson will have done plenty to make Glasgow 2014.

An early medal for the hosts carries so much clout in getting a Games up and running, and when it is one of the home team’s star names even more so. That then places a burden on the star name, an expectation, a need to deliver. It is the sort of pressure Jessica Ennis and Rebecca Adlington faced ahead of London 2012, Ennis handled it, Adlington, for all her brilliance in Beijing, did not. Now Jamieson faces the same challenge.

“I think I’ve dealt with it OK,” he said this week of the pressure that has grown as the years have shortened to months, weeks, days and now hours before he climbs on to the starting blocks. “It wouldn’t be natural if I didn’t have a little meltdown about it now and then. I think I’m feeling so relaxed about it now because I know that there’s nothing else I could  have done.”

The suspicion is that in Thursday’s 200 metres breaststroke Jamieson will follow the Ennis path rather than the Adlington way. Adlington is Britain’s greatest female swimmer, and then some, but there was always a mental fragility that accompanied her to the pool – she admitted so herself. Jamieson is made of sterner stuff and the best evidence for what he might do here came in London. In a British swimming team for which great things were forecast, he was supposed to be an also-swam. Instead, while his supposed betters floundered he bounced on to his blocks and came within 0.15sec of a gold medal in the 200m breaststroke. He had never swum faster. Here, it seemed, was a man for the big occasion. 

The 25-year-old will have his big occasion back where it all began. He is the son of a former Hearts, Alloa and Stenhousemuir footballer and grew up watching Celtic – his Olympic final was shown on the big screen at Celtic Park ahead of a Champions League qualifier. His swimming career started in Tollcross but it is in Bath that his natural skill has been honed by David McNulty. Jamieson has been there for the past five years and that remove from Scotland has helped provide a breathing space from much of the build-up back home.

Siobhan O’Connor, who trains in Bath with Michael Jamieson, says he is one for the big occasion (Getty Images) Siobhan O’Connor, who trains in Bath with Michael Jamieson, says he is one for the big occasion (Getty Images)
“A home Games is a massive thing,” said Siobhan O’Connor, the England swimmer who trains alongside Jamieson in Bath and was his team-mate in London. “For every athlete it’s what you dream of. I’ve heard Michael say this is as big as London was because Glasgow is the pool where he grew up in, where he trained, 20 minutes from his house. Pressure is a good thing, it’s how you deal with it that matters. It doesn’t have to be a negative. Michael is incredible. We all look up to him. What he did in London was brilliant. He was quite an underdog going in but had the most confidence – he knew he could do it and we all knew he could do it.”

There is a natural confidence to Jamieson, he’s “gallus” as they say in his home city, a sportsman who embraces an occasion rather than shrinking from it. But this is different. In 2010 when he won a silver medal at the Commonwealths in India that was unexpected (although not by him), as was his success in London (although not by him). Daniel Gyurta had to set a world record to beat him – Jamieson was also within the previous mark. This time it is expected even if five of the top eight in the world are also swimming.

“The nerves are starting to build now, so I’m just trying to stay as chilled as possible,” he said. “I had a quick look at the pool and I had some butterflies already just walking in and seeing the arena.”

For the likes of O’Connor the Commonwealths are a staging post en route to the Rio Olympics in 2016. In the greater scheme of things they are for Jamieson too. He would swap failure here for success in Rio – any sportsman or woman in the Commonwealths would – but, and this is a big but, success here would mean so much, and not only for him.

“This is,” he said, “the biggest race of my life. It’s at home. It’s where things started.”

Michael Jamieson: Factfile

Born 5 August 1988, Glasgow. His mother was a swimmer and father played football for Hearts.

2011 Won first medal, a 200m breaststroke bronze at the European Championships in Szczecin, behind Daniel Gyurta.

2012 Took silver at London Olympics and World Championships – both behind Gyurta but breaking British record twice.

2013 Another silver behind Gyurta, at the European Championships in Herning.

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