It is a Saturday morning in the Commonwealth pool in Edinburgh, nestled beneath Arthur's Seat. It's quiet inside the pool, the only sound the rhythm of arms and legs breaking the water and the splash of swimmers tumbling at the end of each length. Occasionally one of the coaches prowling poolside lets out a yelp. Britain's Olympic swimmers are fine-tuning.
The contrast with what lies ahead could not be more acute. Dotted around the seats that run the length of the pool are the pick of young swimmers from local clubs. They watch in awed silence as Rebecca Adlington, Fran Halsall, Hannah Miley and co plough up and down.On the scoreboard at one end a succession of messages scroll up the screen. "Hang around with positive personalities not 'energy vampires' "… "Swim your own race, not the opponent's"… "Don't overhype the Games, it's just another swim meet."
Except it's not. This Saturday morning Miley will climb on to the blocks at the London Aquatics Centre watched by 17,500 people, most of whom will be willing the slight 22-year-old to do something special, to "smash the pool" as the Americans like to say. There is an expectation, founded in fact, that this could prove something special for the best generation of female swimmers seen in this country.
Miley is Britain's best hope of a medal in the pool on Day One of the Games. On Saturday evening – presuming morning heats have been negotiated (and the belief is it will never be more difficult to make an Olympic final) – she will swim the 400m individual medley. A silver medallist at the World Championships last year, Miley has the third-fastest time in the world this year – 0.75sec behind the American favourite, Elizabeth Beisel. In the phoney war that leads up to a Games, reading rankings is close to impossible, but Miley has a chance, a real chance of a medal, a genuine chance to win gold.
Earlier that afternoon Mark Cavendish will have raced down The Mall with every chance of claiming gold, and then focus will switch to the pool: Michael Phelps against Ryan Lochte – and after that the fortunes of a 5ft 5in swimmer who trains in a 25m, four-lane pool in the north of Scotland.
It is a focus she has prepared for. "Cavendish is the very, very first event and that's fine," says Miley, changed into her Team GB kit with her swimming gear packed into a red backpack. "I'd rather not be the very first event."
She reels off the names of team-mates who will take to the pool before her, but none of them are expected to climb on to a podium and possibly see their lives change forever, as happened to Adlington. There was another team-mate in the pool yesterday, except his physique betrayed him as not belonging to the pool of athletes. Simon Middlemas is the team's psychologist, the man who helped get Adlington back on track after Beijing. Yesterday he had to swim a length against Adlington, having broken a team rule at the nearby hotel where they are based until Tuesday. Team spirit is buoyant.
Miley, too, has worked with Middlemas and Misha Botting, who performs a similar role at the Scottish Institute of Sport, focusing particularly on being the first of Britain's crop of potential swimming medallists.
"You can get your body 90 per cent ready but the last 10 is in your head," says Miley. "Races can be won and lost in the call room. It's all about yourself. It's amazing that even a couple of words can make a difference to your confidence, to your self-belief. Just how you perceive something can make a huge difference to how you feel in the water. Swimming is all about feel and relaxation in the water. If you're able to say a couple of words that help trigger that feeling then that's something that you've got."
So what are those words, those little tricks? She grins. "I can't give away my secrets! But it's one of those things we've worked on for a couple of years now and I've grown to appreciate it."
Her father, Patrick, walks down the pool as she swims, clutching a stopwatch. He has coached her since she started swimming. It is his plan for the Olympic cycle to switch the focus away from the nitty-gritty of technique and the hard, hard yards in the pool as the big day draws near to ensure the mind is in working order. Few of these swimmers will have experienced the crowd, noise, sound and fury that awaits down south.
"It's difficult to prepare for because we've never really had that," says Miley. "The closest we got was the trials, when there were 2,500 people watching. Then going out with my headphones on it wasn't so much hearing it, it was feeling it. The reverberations going through my chest were just incredible.
"It's going to be intriguing what that feels like when it's eight times noisier. I don't think anybody can really prepare for that until you get out there and experience it, but it's how you control that, how you react to it that's going to be the key."
Women's 2004 relay team may get medal after runner stripped of gold
The American runner Crystal Cox was yesterday stripped of her gold medal from the 4 x 400m relay at the 2004 Athens Olympics for doping offences. Cox admitted in 2010 to using anabolic steroids and accepted a disqualification of her results from 2001 to 2004 and a four-year suspension.
The International Olympic Committee have put off a decision on whether to disqualify the US relay team for whom Cox ran in the preliminary rounds in Athens, but not in the four that won the final.
If the US are stripped of the victory, Britain would be awarded a bronze medal. Russia would move from silver to gold and Jamaica from bronze to silver.
- More about: