Spofforth draws inspiration from tragedies of life beyond the pool

England's backstroke gold medal prospect brings some rare perspective to life as an elite athlete
Click to follow

After the curtain-raising extravaganza of the opening ceremony in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium yesterday, the competitive action got under way here in the wee small hours British time, with the first swimming session at the Mukherjee Stadium. Already, the Commonwealth Games experience in India's chaotic, crowded capital city has made an impression on Gemma Spofforth, the young woman from West Sussex who last year assumed Rebecca Adlington's mantle as the golden girl of British swimming. "I was on a bus here the other day and saw some kids lying outside a tent by the side of a road crying," she said. "It's not something you're used to seeing. It makes you so sad. You feel so helpless."

It was only natural that Spofforth should feel the urge to help, even if she was on her way to training ahead of the heats of the 100m backstroke, which take place on day two in the Commonwealth Games pool at a little after 4am tomorrow. In the life she has built outside of the aquatics arena at the University of Florida in Gainsville, the 6ft tall native of Shoreham-by-Sea spends several hours a night each week working as a volunteer counsellor at the Alachua County Crisis Centre. "I work on the suicide hotline," she said, standing in the shade of the Athletes' Village. "People say I talk through my ass but I'd like to think I can help in some way."

As she strives to bring her Midas touch to bear in the Commonwealth pool here, Spofforth is in a moral quandary about competing at an event that has had so much money lavished upon it – some £3.9bn, 17 times more than the original estimate – while so much human destitution is clear to see in Delhi. "I do think that," she confessed. "I do hope these Games might improve the living conditions for some, though I am not sure about that."

Spofforth has been made an Associate of the Alachua County Crisis Centre, ready to make mercy dashes through the night to see any suicidal callers who might need urgent face-to-face counselling rather than reassurance down a phone line. She decided to become more than just "the swimmer," as she puts it, after meeting Jason Read, a member of the United States' gold medal-winning rowing eights team at the Athens Olympics in 2004 who worked as a firefighter at Ground Zero on 9/11.

Spofforth is considering taking a post-graduate course in counselling after she graduates in December this year with a degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences. She has had troubled waters to negotiate in her own life. Born with a cleft palate, she was almost forced to give up swimming when she spent two years suffering from pancreatitis. She was also afflicted with severe depression after her mother, Lesley, died of cancer in December 2007.

Happily, she has emerged from the depths to hit the heights in her swimming life. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where Adlington struck double-gold in the 400m and 800m freestyle, Spofforth came close to making the podium, finishing fourth in the 100m backstroke. At the world championships in Rome last year, where Adlington won a bronze in the 400m freestyle, Spofforth took gold in her specialist event. She did so in stunning fashion, clocking 58.12sec to smash the 100m backstroke record held by the Russian who finished in her wake as runner-up, Anastasia Zueva.

Spofforth was the only British woman to finish on top of the global pile in Rome – Liam Tancock was the only man, prevailing in the 50m backstroke – but at the European Championships in Budapest two months ago, she was one of five females who ruled the continental waves for Britannia in individual events, along with Adlington (400m freestyle), Fran Halsall (100m freestyle), Lizzie Simmonds (200m backstroke) and Hannah Miley (400m Individual Medley).

Miley is swimming for Scotland here, where the British nations will be up against the might of Australia, who bagged 16 of the women's swimming gold medals at the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne four years ago. It promises to be different in Delhi, although perhaps not in the finals session today with both Miley (200m Individual Medley) and Adlington (200m freestyle) competing in events below their specialist distances. "The Australians had the advantage of a home crowd in Melbourne," Spofforth said. "I think that was a big factor."

One factor in Spofforth's performance in the Delhi pool could be the motivation of a recent visit to Washington DC with the University of Florida's national collegiate title-winning swim team. "All of the national champion teams from all sports were invited to the White House to meet Barack," she explained. "We're not on first-name terms but he did speak to me. He asked me which university I was from and I told him.

"He gave a really inspirational speech. It was about how you can be a student and an athlete together."

Delhi diary: What to watch


10.30am Archery

Danielle Brown makes history when she takes part in the ranking round of the women's recurve competition. The 22-year-old will become the first Paralympian to represent England in an event for able-bodied athletes at a Commonwealth Games. She will beat Sarah Storey to that honour by four days. A Paralympic champion as a swimmer and a cyclist, she competes in the track cycling on Friday.

11.30am Swimming

The first session of finals in the Games pool includes the women's 200m freestyle, which should feature England's Rebecca Adlington (if she has got through the 4am heats). The distance is at the lower end of the double Olympic champion's scale, though she is ranked fourth in the Commonwealth coming into the Games. Also on the programme is the women's 200m Individual Medley. Scotland's Hannah Miley, the European 400m IM champion, is entered. The men's 400m freestyle should feature defending champion David Carry of Scotland and the reigning 1,500m champion, David Davies of Wales.

Early tomorrow

4am Swimming

Tuesday's heats feature world champion Gemma Spofforth in the 100m backstroke, together with her England team-mate Lizzie Simmonds.

4.30am Shooting

In the 50m pistol event, England's Mick Gault aims for a 16th Commonwealth medal.

TV: 9-11am, BBC2. 11am-1pm, 2.15-6pm BBC1. Highlights: 7-8pm BBC2

Additional coverage on BBCi