Siobhan-Marie O’Connor beats illness to take on world’s best

The rising star of British swimming tells Matt Majendie competing at Stratford this week can launch an incredible year

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This week is a chance for mental scars to be mended inside London’s Olympic pool, not the happiest playground for Britain’s swimmers as the rest of Team GB flourished in 2012.

The side have been able to mould more positive memories with training camps at the Stratford venue but today marks their first competition there since 2012, in the shape of the British Swimming Championships.

In three years British Swimming has risen like a phoenix, the team shining at the Commonwealth Games, European Championships and World Championships. Part of that tidal wave of success is Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, helped in some ways by the fact that her impressions of the Olympics were nothing but positive.

Aged 16 and having just finished her GCSEs, she was simply happy in 2012 to be a part of the event. Having missed out on qualifying initially, she sneaked into the 100m breaststroke just six weeks from the Games, missing her school prom in the process.

“I had a ropey journey to make the team,” she admits, “and I thought I’d missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but I got in and that was the best six weeks of my life.

“So coming back here, walking through Westfield [the shopping centre next to the Olympic park] and to go back through so many amazing memories, it feels surreal.”

For O’Connor that means five events over the five days of competition, which double as the trials for the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in July and August, beginning with the 100-metre freestyle tomorrow.

Despite the exhaustive nature of the schedule, O’Connor is merely happy to be fit and healthy on the starting blocks because of an ongoing battle with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. The condition has hampered her in the past but a combination of the right medication, nutritional advice and round-the-clock support from British Swimming has helped. Each day she fills out an online form, enabling the medical staff to keep a close eye on her well-being.

She explains: “There’s times where it’s pretty bad and times where it’s pretty good. Touch wood, right now I’ve found a good balance.

“I’ve not got the best immune system and everyone has their things to deal with. That’s mine and I do struggle when I get ill as it’s so full on. So you have to balance things and maybe not push so much that you fall off the edge in training.”

The spotlight is on O’Connor more than previously after a stunning 2014, in which she won six medals at the Commonwealth Games, including one gold, and then backed that up with three silvers at the short-course World Championships in Doha in December.

All that happened while the pool where she has trained for most of her career in Bath was closed for six months for renovation. O’Connor and her group, including the Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson, had to relocate to Millfield School. The pool reopens after these trials and O’Connor says: “I’m looking forward to no longer living out of a suitcase.”

After the exertions of the last year, she is confident that 2015 will be more than a match for what she achieved in 2014. “I’m more focused than last year and I want to race the best in the world in Russia,” she says. “I’d say I’m very ambitious. I believe I can improve on my times and, if I do that, the performances will come. I just love to race and want to make the most of it while I still can.”

It is a mood she insists permeates the squad – a communal buzz she first experienced at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and one she hopes will be replicated in London at the second time of asking.