Swimming is a sport played out with the finger pressed firm on the fast-forward button, and women’s swimming in particular can see a career completed in the blink of an ordinary eye. Siobhan-Marie O’Connor is 18 and a veteran of the London Olympics, which she swam aged 16 and where she marvelled at the achievements of 15-year-olds.
London was her chance to dip her toe into the churning waters of the very best international competition. In this age, swimming waits for no woman, so roll forward two years and the Commonwealth Games, which begin in Glasgow 12 days from now, is time to deliver medals.
O’Connor represents one of England’s best chances for gold in the Tollcross pool on the banks of the Clyde and is well aware that while London was allowed to be her fact-finding mission, Glasgow is all about getting on the podium. It’s time to sink or swim.
“I have got to look at coming away with a few medals,” says O’Connor. “That is definitely what I would be happy with. You target a time because that’s what you think you can do but it’s a race and when you get in a final the time is irrelevant. At the end of the day it is about winning medals.”
O’Connor is a year older than Ruta Meilutyte and Katie Ledecky, who both won Olympic gold aged 15 in London. She is also a handful of months older than Ye Shiwen, the controversial double gold winner and world record breaker in the Aquatics Centre. There is a margin for maturing at a different pace, albeit a narrow one. O’Connor is a medley specialist – the Australian Alicia Coutts, her main rival in Glasgow, is 26. But they both have Ye to contend with.
Ye and the Chinese though are not a concern for the next couple of weeks. For the first time since London, O’Connor and the rest of England’s swimmers will assemble at the Aquatics Centre for a pre-Glasgow training camp. For most it will be the first time back since the Olympics, where the swimming team was conspicuous by its failure to meet expectations. The two medallists from London will not be there – Rebecca Adlington has retired and Michael Jamieson swims for Scotland. The coaching set-up has been reshuffled, amid funding cuts following the failures in London, with Bill Furniss, the man behind Adlington’s success, promoted to head coach and Chris Spice installed as performance director. Results have been modest, making Glasgow a telling staging post en route to Rio.
“For me the sport is performance-based so if you don’t make your performance target you have got to change a few things to get there in the future,” says O’Connor. Like Jamieson and Adlington, O’Connor can be excused the overall failings in London (she finished 21st in the 100m breaststroke), but will shoulder greater expectation in Glasgow.
“Definitely, because I’m older, I’m swimming faster,” she says. “There is expectation. Swimming is what I want to do and I love it. When I was at the Olympics it was kind of just about making the team. Now I’m ranked higher there is more expectation but a lot of that is what I want to do for myself.”
O’Connor is based in her hometown of Bath, the host of one of two performance hubs in British Swimming. There she has flourished under the guidance of David McNulty, who stood in as Britain’s head coach after the Games but ruled himself out of the consideration for the post long term. That was in part because of the group of swimmers he has in Bath; Jamieson, Andrew Willis, Sophie Allen and O’Connor offer cause for cautious – and after London caution is the sport’s watchword – optimism.
O’Connor’s improvement has her ranked second in the world in the 200m individual medley this year. Coutts, a medallist in Ye’s wake in London, has the quickest time of the year and will be the woman to beat in Glasgow. With Hannah Miley, and a wave of home support behind her, also in the field, the 200m IM has the makings of one of the races of the Games. O’Connor has form behind her, having won the British title in the Glasgow pool earlier this year.
Last month she won the medley and the 100m free at the British Invitational meet in Manchester, including setting a new personal best in the freestyle. She will swim four events in Glasgow including relays and a medal from each, given the absence of a US, Chinese and European challenge, is achievable – and given British Swimming’s need to prove its athletes’ worth not far off a requirement.
“Pressure is a good thing, it’s how you deal with it that matters,” says O’Connor. “I have got to look at coming away with a few medals. In terms of performance, Glasgow is a massive marker in terms of the four-year cycle of the Olympics. It’s what I’m aiming for. To win a medal at the Commonwealths would be incredible. It would be a good place to be two years away from an Olympics.”
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor is supported by the Sky Academy Sports Scholarships scheme, helping 11 young athletes fulfil their potential with tailored support including funding and mentoring. www.skysports.com/scholarships