Those pounding the Tarmac in today's London Marathon will know all about the loneliness of the long-distance runner. But what about the loneliness of the long-distance swimmer? Rebecca Adlington rightly hogged the headlines in Beijing, but in a sport of different strokes it is not all splash and dash.
Keri-Anne Payne, a young lady who looks as good as she sounds, is Britain's best female long-distance swimmer – by a distance. She came away from Beijing with an Olympic silver medal, acquired not in the Water Cube but over 10km in the open water of the rowing lake. Subsequently she won last year's World Championship in the rather choppier Tyrrhenian Sea off the Italian coast.
OK, so 10km is not quite swimming the Channel, but it's long enough to feel lonely, especially when you are way in front of the others. So we asked what occupies the mind of 22-year-old Keri-Anne as she ploughs through sea, lake or river for around two hours. "Boys," she replied. Beg pardon? Oh, buoys! "You've got to turn around the buoys and that makes you concentrate and make sure you know where the feeding station is," she says. "Actually there are quite a lot of things to think about and I don't find it at all monotonous or boring.
"Sometimes I think about things other than swimming, anything that comes into my head really, but the most important thing is to make sure you are where you want to be and if you aren't, how you want to get there."
Apparently, often there are more hazardous things to worry about too. "When I raced in the Hudson River it was ridiculous – big waves, jellyfish, weeds and lots of boats making it choppy. I came out with jellyfish stings, a bloodied nose, a black eye and sore feet. You often get hit when you're all trying to get around the same turning point. It's a tough sport but there isn't really anything that fazes me now – except sharks."
Keri-Anne was born and brought up in South Africa. But hang on, hers is no Kevin Pietersen scenario. Her English-born parents worked in Johannesburg – her father installing catering equipment and her mother as a credit controller – and they returned to England when she was 13.
"We had a good life in South Africa and I enjoyed my childhood out there but I am glad we moved back because swimming-wise there are so many more opportunities here," she says. "Both my parents were good swimmers and I couldn't wait to get in the water. I started at four, I could do proper front crawl at five, and by seven I was good at all the strokes."
The family moved to Manchester in April 2001 and by December Keri-Anne had made the British junior team, and the seniors two years later after joining Stockport Metro, where she has been coached by Sean Kelly. "I have been swimming virtually all my life, from 200 metres up to open water, which is where my heart is, though I am quite reluctant to give up swimming in the pool. I did 800s for quite a long time, which gave me a grounding for long-distance swimming.
"Reaching the Olympics was a dream come true. I didn't do quite as well as I had hoped in the pool events and going into the open water I was ranked eighth, so to come out second with a silver medal and then win the World Championship was just fantastic."
Now her thoughts have turned to a shark-free Serpentine, and a possible gold in London. "You never know what the competition is going to be like in 2012, it just depends who is on form. It may be only two years off but that's quite far away in competition terms because there are the Worlds and the Commonwealth Games before then. But it's 2012 I think about all the time."
Her training regime consists of 10 three-and-a-half-hour pool sessions a week plus three to four gym sessions, running and yoga. Last weekend she captained a British team at Crystal Palace in the Swimathon, the world's biggest fundraising swimming event, when a record 20,029 swimmers plunged into hundreds of pools across the country to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Her boyfriend, David Carry, 28, a fellow British team member, is a 200m and 400m freestyler, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist who also has 2012 ambitions. Britain's most glamorous bathing beauty since Sharron Davies says her ultimate aim is simply "to be the best I can and know that when I've finished swimming I've done everything possible".
She is already thinking of a post-swimming career, possibly following Davies into the media. "I would quite like to go into broadcasting. That would be pretty cool."
The British Olympic Association, formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.ukReuse content