Generation Games for island family

Schoolgirl and grandmother epitomise the spirit of the Isle of Man's special team

It was unavoidable, but Olivia Rawlinson had to miss all six of her scheduled lessons on Friday. "Science, RE, Maths, English, Modern Languages - that's Spanish - and History," the Ramsey Grammar School pupil counted. Given her exceptional circumstances, it seemed fanciful to suppose she might have been required to hand in a note explaining her absence from school. "Yeah, I did, actually," she countered. What? Saying, "I'm sorry, but Olivia won't be at school for three weeks because she's going off to Melbourne to swim in the Commonwealth Games"? "Yeah," Olivia said, laughing.

No wonder Norman Wisdom has become an adopted Manxman. The story of the 13-year-old girl taking temporary leave from school to take on the world's best might have been drawn from one of those black-and-white classics featuring the Isle of Man's most celebrated resident championing the cause of the unlikeliest of underdogs. Olivia, though, is no fictional character. She just happens to be the youngest of the 27-strong team of Manx Davids getting ready to fight the sporting Goliaths of the Commonwealth.

Olivia, in fact, is the youngest athlete from any sport ever picked to represent the Isle of Man at a Commonwealth Games. Like her 26 team-mates - with whom she departed from the island's airport at Ronalds-way on Friday - she has gained her selection on strictly measured merit. Swimming as a 12-year-old against adults at the Island Games in Shetland last summer, she gathered a haul of eight medals - three silvers and five bronzes. At last year's British age-group championships, she won nine medals - six golds and three silvers. She is one of the Under-17s on British Swimming's world-class development programme. In 2012, when the Olympics come to London, she will be a veteran of 19.

"The whole idea of going to Melbourne is to give Olivia the experience of competing at a major championship," her coach, Max Stewart, said. "It's the fourth-ranked event in the world that British swimmers can compete in, and we hope it will be just a real good educational experience, as well as a very enjoyable one. We'll be rubbing shoulders with the best and going into the lion's den of swimming, if you like. You only learn from being around the best, and in swimming you won't get better than the Australians.

"At the moment, Olivia is entered in seven events. She's due to be swimming on all six days. We'll see how it goes, but I don't think she'll have any problems. She's got her own goals. We've discussed them and I'm sure she'll rise to them. They're realistic. To go and enjoy the experience in this first one is very important too."

There seems little danger of Olivia failing to do that. She set off on the marathon trip to Melbourne - via Manchester and Dubai - with her mother, Vicki, among the team party as her official chaperone. Stewart went with her, too. He is the Isle of Man's national swimming coach. In a squad with the distinct feel of an extended family about it, there is also close support from the most senior member.

"Olivia's a lovely girl," Pauline Kelly said. "I hope she does well. It's going to be a wonderful experience for her. And it's nice that she can be going so young. My son was in the 1986 Games, in the cycling. He did quite well. So I'm following in his footsteps, so to speak."

At 66, Mrs Kelly is the oldest competitor in the Manx team. She is a mother of three and a grandmother of eight. She did not start out on her sporting career, in lawn bowls, until six years after her eldest son, Michael, rode for the Isle of Man in the 1986 Games in Edinburgh.

She has, in fact, already trundled in his tyre-marks, as it were, having played with her doubles partner - Maureen Payne, 61, another grandmother - at the 2002 Games. She made her mark in Manchester, too. The Manx pair held New Zealand, the eventual gold medal winners, to a draw, and they were unlucky to lose to England.

"We actually beat the top Eng-lish team in Portugal in November," Pauline said. "Isn't that amazing? We have to find all of our own funds. And there's only the one flat green on the island."

That island - virtually equidistant from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland - is only 33 miles long and 15 miles wide. Its entire population, 73,117, could fit comfortably into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the opening ceremony on Wednesday week. There would be 11,883 seats left over.

"It is an achievement for us to compete against the likes of England and Australia," Graham Jones, the secretary of the Isle of Man Commonwealth Games Association, acknowledged. "In Manchester four years ago my son, Alan, was involved as a swimmer. He was on the block in the final of the relay and on the block next to him was Ian Thorpe. But he wasn't daunted."

That is Alan Jones who wasn't daunted, presumably. Not that the minnows of the Commonwealth are without big fish of their own. Indeed, they have a world champion cyclist in Mark Cavendish. Unfortunately for him, the event in which he happens to be a world champion, the two-team Madison, does not feature in the Commonwealth Games programme.

When the action begins in Melbourne the week after next, the Manxmen and women will not be expecting to add to their tally of seven medals in 48 years of Commonwealth competition. "We'll be looking for achievement, for semi-finals, for personal bests," Jones said. "The selection criterion has been realistic but stiff. That's why we're only taking a team of 27. But we're taking some personal coaches and two physiotherapists. That's a first for us. We've never taken a physiotherapist before. We've raised money to fund a support team, to make sure our athletes are as well prepared as they can be."

As for Olivia, she has some pool preparation and some homework to do. "I'm taking some schoolwork with me," she said, "but I'll probably catch up with most of it when I get back."

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