ON THE biggest stage, some athletes step up while others wilt.
As Michael Jamieson, the garrulous and good-natured 24-year-old from Bishopbriggs, who was Britain’s best performer in the pool at the London Olympics with silver in the 200m breaststroke, describes how the screaming, eyes-on-stalks, crowd inspired him, it’s easy to see why he is in the former category. “The big events are why I’m in the sport,” he says. “I love racing and especially racing in front of the big, noisy crowds. I love competing at the major events. In the lead-up to London there was a lot said about the advantage that home crowd would bring and I always knew it would be a positive factor for me. Everyone’s personality is different but I just knew that I’d be able to use the crowd as a positive.”
Jamieson set three British records in successive races to win silver and was only denied a gold by a new world record from Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta. Little had been expected of him but he was almost eight seconds faster than David Wilkie’s gold medal-winning swim in 1976 and left a stellar field which included Andrew Willis, his training partner who beat him in the GB Olympic trial, and Kosuke Kitajima, the two-times Olympic 200m champion, trailing.
Yet, if anything, the pressure will be even greater in Istanbul at this week’s short course (25-metre pool) world championships. No longer a virtual unknown, Jamieson leads a young, tight-knit British team that is under intense pressure to perform.
Then there is the competition. As well as Willis and the Olympic champion and short-course world record holder Gyurta, Jamieson will face 19-year-old Japanese wonderkid Akihiro Yamaguchi, who in September smashed Gyurta’s world record. On the plus side, Jamieson and the team will be competing in Istanbul’s huge 23,000-seater Sinan Erdem Dome, one of swimming’s largest and noisiest venues.
“It’ll take another British record to challenge for the top three but I’m in the shape to do that,” he says. “The 100m is more of a personal challenge because it’s my weakness, but I’ll be looking to post a personal best to show that I’m in the shape to do well in the 200m, where I’ll face a really fast and packed field. But I swam in Istanbul in one of my first internationals and it really suits me. It’s a good pool where the spectators are so close to the pool that creates an incredible atmosphere.
“I want to be on the podium. I’m swimming better than I expected to be after such a long break after the Games, and it’s important that I do well as I’m the second oldest member of the team – and I’m just 24 – so I want to be leading by example.
“That will put psychological pressure on me but no one will ever put more pressure on me to perform than I do myself. I want to be breaking records and winning medals but that added pressure doesn’t faze me, it’s something I’ve got to get used to.”
The championships in Istanbul are also taking place against a backdrop of considerable discord in British swimming. Despite unprecedented levels of financial support, Team GB won only three medals in the pool in London, rather than the minimum target of five and the hoped-for total of seven, a failure which led to Australian performance director Michael Scott and American head coach Dennis Pursley quitting. Last week the unrest burst into the open when Rebecca Adlington – whose two bronzes, along with Jamieson’s silver, acccounted for Team GB’s haul – claimed British swimming was in an “absolute mess”.
Jamieson, however, disagrees. He said: “It’s natural for people to go back over things and look for the reasons why they didn’t get the results that they wanted. The main thing is that there isn’t a need for wholesale changes. The number of finalists we had does show that there was an improvement, although obviously that final medal tally wasn’t what we were looking for.
“With the immense support swimming has had over the past four years, results are expected and we all know that if we get that level of support then we need to produce the goods. There’s no-one more disappointed than the athletes. They’re the ones who put the hours in and devote their lives to the pursuit of Olympic medals. But if I swim badly at a competition I don’t blame anybody else. The responsibility for the result comes down to myself and my coach, and that’s maybe got lost a little bit recently.”
No one could ever accuse Jamieson of a lack of effort.
From the end of primary school he left his house by 5am each morning to spend two and a half hours in the pool, with the same again after school. As an 18-year-old he survived on pennies in a Paris bedsit, often not having enough money to eat and almost bankrupting his parents in the process, so that he could train with legendary coach Fred Vernoux.
While Olympic fame has now eased his financial worries, the memory of how hard he struggled to get there drives him forward. And, on the other hand, there are the warm memories from London.
He said: “I can laugh at those memories I have of not being able to afford to eat in Paris and put it down as character-building but it adds to my story. I do feel like I’ve done it the hard way but then that’s the way I like it and that’s the way I wanted to do it.
“What happened in London has also had an amazing effect on my life. Several times every day I think back to life in the [Olympic] village. The whole event was amazing, it was everything I had hoped it would be. Those are such great memories to call upon, especially now we’re in this winter block. I’m not seeing much daylight at the moment, it’s dark when I get to the pool in the morning and dark when I leave at night. That memory helps me remember that it’s worth pushing through, that there will be better days.”
Hopefully, those will come this week in Istanbul, although it’s hard for Jamieson not to take a longer view that encompasses the World Championships in Barcelona in July and then the Commonwealth Games in his home city in 2014.
“The Commonwealth Games is a huge part of my focus now,” he added. “The swimming’s taking place at Tollcross, a pool where I grew up swimming for six or seven years. That’s where I put in the hard yards and that’s where I made the decision that I wanted to be an Olympian and a full-time athlete. I’m born and bred in the East End of Glasgow and it’s an event that is at the forefront of my mind. I’m just so privileged to be able to be able to race at a home Olympics and then, fingers crossed, at a home Commonwealth Games. Racing for the Saltire as well is going to be pretty special and I’m really looking forward to that. In fact, I think about it every day.”