12 for 2012: No 5: Hannah Miley, swimmer

Our monthly series presenting potential medal-winners at the London Games in six years' time turns to a Scottish pool prospect - and hears how a past hero prepared for greatest show on earth
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The Independent Online

It is still six years away, and a million metaphorical miles from the tranquil corner of rural Aberdeenshire in which she happens to live, but Hannah Miley does not have to close her eyes to imagine what it might be like to dip a competitive toe in home water at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in the east end of London in 2012. Sitting in the living room of the Miley home in a quiet valley west of Inverurie, Hannah can still hear the echo of the roar she experienced at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatics Centre two months ago.

"You literally needed ear plugs when you were on pool side," she says, reflecting on the partisan support that helped Australia's formidable female swimmers to 16 of the 19 gold medals available to them at the Melburnian Commonwealth Games. "It is inspiring when you think about it, because in London it'll be like that for us. So if I get to a final, that cheer will be for me, or for any other British athlete. I've had people from my own club cheer me on, and people from other clubs, but to have a whole stadium cheer you on is something different. I think the buzz you'll get from it will be amazing."

It is amazing to think that the 16-year-old girl sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor in her school jumper has not only tasted the kind of big-time sporting atmosphere she can expect to encounter if she makes it all the way to 2012 but has already thrived on it. Swimming in Melbourne, in what might be described more as a shark's lair than a lion's den, the fifth-form pupil from Inverurie Academy reached the final of the 400m individual medley. She very nearly won a medal, too, placing fourth behind Stephanie Rice of Australia, England's Rebecca Cooke and another Australian, Jennifer Reilly.

Had it not been for a virus that left her debilitated in hospital, having lost 6kg in weight, just a month before the Games, the young Miss Miley would probably know what it's like to stand on a medal podium at a major sporting gathering. On her return from Melbourne she won the 400m IM at the British Championships in Sheffield in 4min 46.55sec, a Scottish record time and 0.58sec quicker than Reilly's bronze medal-winning time in Melbourne.

"But I'm a great believer in thinking everything happens for a reason," Hannah says, pondering what might have been. "Sometimes I think, 'If I'd got that bronze medal, would I have been big-headed and maybe everything would have gone down the drain?' Maybe I would have become a bit carefree."

Sitting on the sofa listening, Carmel Miley can't help but beam with maternal pride. Her daughter has a good deal on her plate just now - not so much the toast she is hungrily devouring in between school and Tuesday night training as the twin demands of studying for her Highers, the Scottish equivalent of English GCSEs, and preparing for her next big examination in the pool, the European Championships in Budapest in August.

And yet, in the midst of it all, Hannah has a mature sense of perspective about her burgeoning life in the international sporting lane.

Not that she has very much room to burgeon in lane four of her local pool two hours later. With aqua aerobics and life- saving classes to fit in at the spartan Inverurie Swimming Centre, Hannah has to plough a crowded, bumpy furrow, crammed into a single lane with the rest of the Garioch Amateur Swimming Club.

In Australia, they would laugh in disbelief at the thought of a national champion and Olympic hopeful having to do her training in a 25m public pool, let alone in such an over-populated, dilapidated one - with orange and white tape tied like a Taggart murder scene over a section where the tiles are crumbling from the walls.

Hannah simply shrugs her shoulders at it all. True to the motto on her school jumper (Spiritus Intus Alit, the spirit nourishes within), she prefers to see her locale in a north-east corner of a country blessed with more Commonwealth gold medals (the Scottish swim team won six in Melbourne) than long-course 50m pools (just four) as a source of inspiration rather than a handicap.

"It makes me think what I can potentially do when I get in a long-course pool," she says. "It makes me want to prove that I can do it. You don't need the best facilities to be the best. It's what talent you have and how you use it that can make you become the best... I sound like one of those commercials for credit cards."

As well as her sense of humour, her keen sense of perspective, and her not inconsiderable reserve of natural talent, Hannah does have one other major advantage in her fight against the Goliaths of the swimming world - her father.

Patrick Miley has had a late assignment to fulfil in his job as a helicopter pilot flying to and from North Sea oil and gas rigs. He meets us at the pool in Inverurie in time for his second shift of the day as head coach of the Garioch club (the first started at 5.30am). A former triathlete, who swam for the Army in his youth, Patrick is not just a regular swimming coach. He's the swimming coach who invented the Aquapacer - a tiny battery-powered pacemaker that sits on a swimmer's temple in training, beeping in time to a tempo programmed by a coach at poolside.

Paul Palmer attributed the 400m freestyle bronze medal he won at the 1996 Olympics to the benefits of using Mr Miley's Aquapacer. The American Brooke Bennett did likewise after retaining the Olympic 800m freestyle title in 2000, swimming nine seconds quicker than she had done in 1996. Ian Thorpe is another multi-Olympic champion who has sung the praises of the training device.

Hannah uses it too. Not that she has been simply programmed for success. Far from it. It takes much more than a battery-powered aid to stroke-regulation to make a British champion, particularly in a rural outpost in Aberdeenshire.

As well as his machine (to which he no longer holds the rights), Patrick Miley has developed a thriving pool of young swimming talent in Inverurie. Scottish Swimming's Junior Coach of the Year Award can be found in a corner of his living room. "I've got at least three or four young swimmers who are tracking much faster than Hannah was at 10 or 11 years of age," he says. "I would be a bit saddened if she was the only one who came through from here. There's a lot of talent that can be developed just in this small community."


My first international medal came at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970 and it is a great competition to start out at. For Hannah to be finishing fourth at the age of 15 in Australia - who are the best nation in the world bar America - is a great start to her swimming career.

Hannah's next major competition will be the European Championships this summer and she needs to look at what she believes the times will be to medal and aim to go one step further than fourth, which will be very tough.

It's so important to be constantly improving every year and by judging the times you think it will take to medal you can then set about working your training programme to achieve them.

Swimmers tend to think in four-year cycles and as London is six years away Hannah should be looking towards Beijing in 2008 as her next goal. With her coach she needs to work out the events she wants to compete in, judge what times it will take to medal and keep that in mind throughout every training session. Then by London four years later she will know what it takes to be challenging for titles.

The home nations as a whole did so well in Melbourne and I know we have the talent to be medalling in 2012 but we have a problem that we stumble when we come to an Olympic Games.

Our élite swimmers need to be getting as much quality race practice in as they can over the next six years and perform consistent times and believe that they can win. That is how Hannah and a number of other talented swimmers in this country will become Olympic champions.

David Wilkie was the first British male for 68 years to win an Olympic gold at Montreal in 1976, taking the 200m breaststroke title in record-breaking time