Swimming: The life of Hannah Miley

The Olympic hopeful tells Robin Scott-Elliot about being coached by her dad and what it would mean to win Britain's first gold of the Games (if Cavendish doesn't beat her to it)

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The Independent Online

Inverurie swimming pool lies a handful of miles to the north-west of Aberdeen. It's a modest facility, 25m long with four lanes. "Sometimes the water level is so shallow that you can't tumble turn," says Hannah Miley. It is where Miley learnt to swim and it is where the slight 22-year-old still swims, the woman who could claim the host nation's first gold at the London Games.

The contrast with the Olympic pool could not be more acute. It is twice as long for a start. The Aquatics Centre is as good as any in the world and left the swimmers purring after their first competitive taste of its waters at this month's British trials. It is state of the art, Inverurie is another state; a different world but it is Miley's world and one she has no intention of leaving.

"We're staying at home," says Miley of the plan between now and Games time. "There's a huge benefit from working at home. That's why I'm still coached by my dad. We work in a rocky environment. The pool isn't spectacular and I share it with between 22 and 26 swimmers. It's a tough way of doing things, but it just works – if it's not broke don't fix it. I live up there because I'm really happy with where I am and that's what counts. I make do with what we've got."

That it is working was evident during the trials, where Miley qualified for the 200m and 400m individual medleys, recording the second fastest time ever in a textile suit in the longer event. Her time was quicker than the one that earned her silver at last year's world championships. As a result Miley will walk out in the Olympic pool on day one proper of the Games as one of the favourites to win the 400m IM. Her final is around 9pm. Some four and a half hours earlier the men's cycling road race finishes on the Mall. "I have been told that if Mark Cavendish doesn't win the gold that all eyes will be on the pool. So it's like 'Mark, you'd better win that gold!'" says Miley.

Winning a home gold on prime-time Saturday night TV, whether Cavendish gets there first or not, will propel Miley into the nation's consciousness and, now that expectation is there, the next few months present a strikingly different challenge to what she faced before her first Games in Beijing. When – presuming the morning heats are negotiated – she walks out, shrouded in her blue hoodie, earphones in place and goggles hiding her eyes, it will be to a focus unlike any she has experienced.

"I went in to Beijing like a rabbit caught in the headlights," she says. "I'm going into London being a lot more experienced, a bit more savvy. I know what I'm doing now. There's going to be a lot of people saying we're expecting medals, we're expecting this, we're expecting that. I have to just put that into a box and put it to one side. I know what my expectations are. I have worked them out with my coach and that's what I will focus on. It can all get a bit messy otherwise. I don't like that sort of pressure.

"London will be amazing. Having experienced what the home crowd was like for the Chinese, it's going to be awesome. I walked out for one of my finals [at the trials] with my headphones on trying to get in the zone. I had my music up ["Monster" by Paramore and "Me and You" by Nero] so couldn't hear the noise but I could feel it. It was going through your chest, it was so loud – booming. You walk taller. It makes a difference and it does make you swim faster."

We talk a couple of days after the trials. Miley, who is part of the Boots Miles for Macmillan programme to raise awareness of people living with cancer, has stayed in London before heading for Amsterdam for another competition. That morning she had done her lengths – there is no break from training between now and the Games – in a leisure centre in Westminster, ploughing up and down unnoticed. Nothing can interfere with the schedule her father, Patrick, has established.

"You don't want any distractions. You have to make sure you get the pool time, the gym time – keeping it the same as possible. I know that if I keep it the same I swim well and the Olympics shouldn't be any different. I'm trying to view it as another swimming competition ... but with a couple more people watching."

She laughs again, seemingly at ease with what lies ahead. Her career has followed an upwards trajectory year after year; sixth in the Beijing 400m IM final, fourth in the worlds a year later, European and Commonwealth gold in 2010 and world silver in Shanghai last year. Her time is coming, and all achieved from a base of home comforts. The rooftop office we sit in has glass walls offering a window across London's urban sprawl, a vivid contrast to her usual morning spectacle.

"It's getting lighter now – that's the time I really look forward to. It makes running or cycling to the pool all the more spectacular. It's so nice and peaceful. It's one of the things I really, really enjoy about going to training – when it's getting light and you're the only one on the road. It's amazing – you see the deer running across the fields, or see red squirrels, the sights and sounds you don't tend to see in too many places."

Some mornings she is accompanied by her father, when his employment as a North Sea helicopter pilot allows. Patrick Miley is a former soldier and triathlete, who has worked with Ian Thorpe and three-times US Olympic gold medallist Brooke Bennett, and coached Miley from day one.

"I haven't known it any other way," says Miley. "People say how can you cope with your dad being your coach, but I enjoy it. He knows me perfectly so he knows how to handle me if I have my odd moments. I don't think I ever was a stroppy teenager so he's not had to deal with me in that sense. But as a relationship between a coach and athlete, father/daughter, it just somehow works.

"It's nice to know I can take him on this journey. To have that kind of relationship, that bond we've had has stayed, grown stronger even. I have a lot more respect for him now than I did when I was younger. He knows he can give me a swim session if he has to go off and fly a helicopter somewhere and I will just get on with it. He will get a lifeguard or my mum to time me."

As with any swimmer at this level, there is an absolute intensity to her training regime and as she lives with her coach it can be difficult to find an escape route. "It does get a bit much. Other athletes get to go home and not think about it but Dad's always got his swimming videos out or getting a book out to research the next stage of physiology, talking about it, debriefing from the videos. It can get a little bit much – that's where my mum comes in! She's really good at saying that's enough. Saturday is my only day off – that night we sit together as a family and do what we call hamsters, curl up on one sofa and watch a movie or the X Factor or Britain's Got Talent. We sit and watch it together, we have dinner together."

That home environment will keep Miley removed from the capital's Olympic clamour, but as the days tick down to the biggest moment of her life she will seek help outside the family unit, via sports psychologists at the Scottish Institute of Sport and Simon Middlemas, who has helped Rebecca Adlington cope with her nerves.

"You go through bouts where you are extremely nervous. It's a rollercoaster and it's a matter of trying to manage. I remember getting seriously nervous before I came to trials, but it's about finding ways to control that. I never thought I'd need a psychologist. How wrong I was. I'm an athlete who trains 36 hours a week, spends 28 of them in the pool. I'm on my own most of the time – it would be pretty difficult to say I'm normal! So to be able to have someone you know to talk to, instead of keeping things bottled up ... to make me realise what I have to do to get the best out of my performance. This is my job, this is what I do. This is what I love."

For information on the Boots Miles for Macmillan programme go to www.macmillan.org.uk/walking

In at the deep end: How do you do the individual medley?

The 400m individual medley is one of the pool's most gruelling events. It is eight lengths of the 50m Olympic pool: 100m butterfly, 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke and then a race for home over 100m freestyle.

The men's event is dominated by Michael Phelps, but the women's is wide open. Hannah Miley won the British trials in 4 minutes 32:67sec – two seconds quicker than her time in taking silver at last year's world championship. Her two main rivals will be Elizabeth Beisel, the US world champion, and Australia's Stephanie Rice, the Olympic champion.

At the 300m mark in the trial, Miley was ahead of Beisel's world championship marker, a good indication at this early stage of the season how fast she might go.

"It is not until you touch the wall that you really know where you are," says Miley. "In Shanghai getting the silver was a shock. I thought I was third or fourth. You just have to race, and leave nothing behind."