James Goddard: Battling for swimming bronze after Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte

Having three all-time greats ahead of him has hindered the athlete but a medal is in reach this time, he tells Robin Scott-Elliot

James Goddard runs a hand through his beard. "I am quite hairy," he says. "It's literally from head to toe. It all comes off. I usually start two days before my race – I do it all apart from my back. Simon Burnett is my room-mate and he is the lucky one who gets to shave my back for me."

Burnett will have to deliver the closest shave of Goddard's career. If the 29-year-old, born in the Seychelles but now very much from Stockport, is to stand any chance of setting foot on an Olympic podium then every little thing will have to go in his favour – no hair can be left untrimmed.

It is not that Goddard is not a world-class athlete. He is, only he is a world-class athlete who happens to have been born at the wrong time. A few years earlier or a few years later and he would have had an excellent chance of winning an Olympic medal, except he faces the aquatic equivalent of the Andy Murray glass ceiling. Instead of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Goddard has to contend with the greatest swimmer ever and the man who might outmedal him in London, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Which, in effect, leaves him in a race for bronze with Laszlo Cseh who is, to use Goddard's own words, "probably the third-best all-round swimmer of all time.

"So I've got them all in my event which is fantastic!" says Goddard and grins disarmingly. Fortune has not been a lane-mate of Goddard's. He missed out on a medal in Athens by 0.2sec – that was in backstroke but he has now been forced to give up the event as has been dogged by a degenerative shoulder injury in recent years, one that requires daily treatment. A mystery illness disrupted his preparation for the British trials earlier this year. He received his silver medal – trials doubled as the British Championships – sporting a "Why always me?" Mario Balotelli T-shirt.

Goddard is a Manchester City fan, so it's not all been doom and gloom. In fact, there is nothing gloomy about Goddard, rather stirring excitement at the chance of being involved in what has the makings of one of the great races of London 2012, and beyond.

"It would be a dream to stand on the podium with those two boys," says Goddard. "Michael Phelps is the best athlete ever to walk this planet, in my opinion – in any sport. To be in the same race and, hopefully, be on the podium with him would be a dream come true. Every day that is all I think about, really. My race plan, my race model, how I want to hit each split on the fly, the back, the breast and the freestyle and I want to be on that podium, absolutely no doubt.

"The last two Olympics I've been fourth and sixth and this is going to be my last Games, no doubt, so it's all or nothing. That is why I am so persistent with my shoulder, seeing the physio every day and making sure I leave nothing to chance. I want to get in there and race and race tough and see if I can't scare those boys a little bit."

Goddard knows what to expect. It was his performance in last year's World Championships in Shanghai that convinced him that the 200m individual medley was the event his battered body should target. He came fourth – behind guess who – but was just 0.1sec behind Cseh, the European record holder. Phelps broke the world record in that race and Goddard expects the winner in London will better the 1.54.00 mark again. His aim is to be dragged along for the ride.

"If you look at those boys and they are going 1:54 you think, 'Why can't I go somewhere near there?'" he says. "When people break world records it kind of moves the whole world on in that event. Everyone seems to get that little bit quicker and that is what sport is all about, isn't it? Improving yourself, improving your own performance, pushing yourself to boundaries you never knew you could do. If I hit my race plan the way I want to hit it I think I could do something special.

"The only thing I can do is focus on myself. I know you probably hear that a lot with athletes but it is true. I can't get too excited about racing those guys because if you blow up after the first 100 metres, everyone else takes you over, I've learnt that lesson in the past."

That was the lesson from Beijing when he went out too fast and faded to finish sixth behind the big three – Cseh got in ahead of Lochte for silver. "It'll always be on my mind. It was a real sore moment for me and a real big moment in my life. So it's made me a more intelligent swimmer, more mature swimmer and, hopefully, I can use that to swim fast in London.

"You've got to try and keep your feet on the ground because the Olympic Games can swirl you around, throw you about, and throw your mind around and you might just lose track of what is going on and what your focus is."

The swimmers arrived in the Olympic Village yesterday but Goddard's event does not get under way for another week, by which time Phelps and Lochte will be in full swing in their quests for seven and six golds respectively. Goddard would be happy with one bronze.

"No one said it was going to be easy, it is a bronze, it is a medal," he says. "You've got to race the best and beat the best and from a personal point of view that is what you want. You want to stand behind the blocks, stand next to Michael Phelps, an Olympic legend. They are all Olympic legends, Cseh and Lochte as well – they are guys who are the best of the best. It's a real honour, a proud moment to be in a home Olympic Games, in front of a home crowd, stood next to the best Olympians of all time, trying to go toe to toe with them."

And Goddard has a go-faster trick up his sleeve. Another grin: "Once I shave all this hair off I'll feel as light as a bird."

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