With less than six months to go until the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, you could forgive swimmer Aimee Willmott for buckling under the weight of expectation. Twelve years of punishing training comes down to one day. Around four and a half minutes on August 6 will determine Willmott’s fate. The ultimate goal? An Olympic medal. It’s enough to give you goosebumps.
But first she has to book her place on the plane in her chosen event, the 400 metres individual medley. And in an Olympic year, the British Swimming trials at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre in Glasgow will be fiercely competitive.
Racing in the pool in which she won Commonwealth silver in 2014, the task is simple on paper. Willmott must finish first in the final of the 400 individual medley on April 12 in under four minutes 35.46 seconds and the Olympic spot is hers. Finish second, or outside the qualifying time, and her selection will be in the hands of national performance director Chris Spice and head coach Bill Furniss.
But if Willmott is under pressure, she isn’t ready to crack and her positive mindset and mental strength are impressive for a 22-year-old. “I think about the Olympic trials every day. I train four or five hours a day and the reason you’re doing it creeps up on you once or twice,” said the Middlesbrough-born swimmer.
“But it’s positive. I really enjoy racing. I am looking forward to the trials and I won’t be nervous. I don’t view it as a big hurdle, I just want to perform well. I enjoy competing, that’s what all this is for. I don’t go into competitions fearing them or worrying too much that everything will go wrong.
“There is no point in worrying. If you are telling yourself you won’t do well, you probably won’t. If it happens it happens. If you try your best, then you can’t really do much more, which is what my parents always said to me. You get in, swim and see who can get their hands on the wall first. I know I am doing everything possible to give myself the best chance to get a medal.
“Every now and then I worry – have I done enough? Is it going well? What is everyone else doing? But you can’t control that so you must forget about it and focus on what you’re doing.
“I’ve been doing this for so long – this is what I want to do. This is the final push to something I’ve always wanted to achieve. I’ve always wanted to win an Olympic medal. The last 12 years have all been aiming for this Olympic Games and now is the time for everything to fall into place.”
Hannah Miley, the Scottish swimmer who beat Willmott to the Commonwealth gold, remains her closest rival in Great Britain. Miley has won nine British titles, and Willmott has chased her home on four occasions to finish runner-up. Willmott’s personal best is four minutes 33.01 seconds, while Miley holds the British record of 4 minutes 31.33, set in 2009.
The world record, meanwhile, is held by China’s Ye Shiwen who won gold at the 2012 London Olympics in a stunning time of four minutes 28.43 seconds. The current world number one is the reigning world champion, Katinka Hosszu of Hungary, who swam four minutes 30.39 seconds last year in Kazan.
But Willmott has put down a marker for 2016. She clocked four minutes 34.82 seconds in January, the second fastest time in the world this year.
She also hopes to use her versatility in the pool to qualify for another event at Rio 2016. “Everything is up in the air, and in Olympic year people come through and make the team for the first time like I did in London,” said Willmott. “But I will be racing the 400 metres freestyle, the 200 individual medley, the 200 butterfly and the 800 freestyle. On the day, who knows, maybe I can sneak a place.”
Willmott, who studies sport and exercise science part-time at the University of East London, counts her London 2012 experience as the highlight of her career so far. But last year’s World Championships, where she finished seventh in four minutes 38.43 seconds, reduced her to tears.
She said: “Walking out in front of a home crowd with everyone wanting me to perform my best, even if they had no idea who I was – that was a special moment. There were no negatives, even though I finished 11th and just missed out on the final.”
Willmott trains at the Olympic pool with the London Aquatic Centre Performance team, and says: “It’s fantastic to get a glimpse of what I experienced at the Olympics every day. You don’t have to worry about finding inspiration. It’s just there.
“But there are tough days. Not swimming as well as you’d like doesn’t get easier, but you learn and it gives you reason to try harder. If it’s all plain sailing and you’re winning, you haven’t got that extra motivation to spur you on. You know you don’t want to experience the pain again.
“The experience in Rio will be the complete opposite. I’m not sure anything can beat a home Games – unless I win a medal. We’ll have to wait and see!”
Tickets for the European Aquatics Championships – the biggest event to be held at the London Aquatics Centre since the 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games – from May 9-22 are now available here: www.euroaquatics2016.london
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and was part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.