HANNAH Miley does not merely punch above her weight. She delivers knockout blows to far heavier foes. She has shown that time after time in her career, but never so decisively as last night, when she fought off the challenge of England’s Aimee Willmott to claim a first swimming gold medal of the Commonwealth Games for Scotland in the 400-metres individual medley.
Stand the two swimmers side by side and you would presume they contested quite different events. The statuesque Willmott dwarfs Miley – as do most of the leading contenders in the event, with a height advantage of up to six inches over the Scot.
But what the 24-year-old lacks in height, she more than compensates for in fighting spirit, talent and more than a little technique, the latter attribute having been honed over the years in co-operation with her coach and father, Patrick Miley. She needed all those qualities against Willmott, who was more than two minutes within world-record pace at one stage as she tried to burn off Miley’s challenge.
But Miley made all the difference with a fantastic first 50m of the freestyle, the last of the four strokes, taking a decisive lead as a manic crowd screamed their support. A touch of fatigue was evident from her in the final 25m – but there was more than a touch visible in Willmott, too, as she proved unable to get back on terms.
Miley, who had held the Games record from 2010, won in 4mins 31.76sec – a new Games record. Willmott was second in 4:33.01, with Keryn McMaster of Australia third in 4:36.35.
All the energy, and heaps of emotion, were back a short time later as Miley wept during the national anthem then embraced her family. “Oh my God, that was just incredible,” she said after the ceremony. “I literally couldn’t feel my legs for the last 50, so when I touched the wall, I was hoping and praying that I could go fast.
“It hurt a lot. It’s great to know that I can produce that time for that amount of pain.”
It was in fact her fastest time for several years. The last time she went faster, she was wearing a polysuit, the kind of costume which the world swimming authorities banned after ruling that it was an artificial aid to buoyancy.
It might all have been different had Miley listened to the self-doubt which dogged her earlier in the year after she lost a couple of races. “Me and my dad have done so much – we’ve gone against the grain,” she continued. “And it’s been a tough year.
“I’ve had my scalp taken a couple of times and I’ve had to stop and take stock, ask: ‘Is it really working? Am I going in the right direction? Do I need to move?’
“But I totally trust the work that my Dad has done. I’ve also had to really take ownership of my sport, focus on what I needed to improve, research everything from nutrition to land exercises, work in the water. It has just all worked thankfully.
“It wasn’t ‘I’ve been beaten a couple of times, I’m going to give up’. I realised I wasn’t progressing the way I wanted to progress. I just felt ‘Is this benefiting me? Am I getting anything from the training? Do I have to move?’
“I had to sit down and have a big talk to my Dad. I kind of grew up. It was almost like a lightbulb moment for me. I kind of realised if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.
“It just kind of came all together, the sacrifices I have made and my family have made. I’ve not been able to see my boyfriend since the end of December. It’s been very, very tough on everybody, not just me, so I guess the tears were just a sigh of relief for my whole family.
“Part of it was that I knew they were here, and that made the world to me – and to be able to go and hug everybody at the end. London [the Olympic Games of 2012, where she finished out of the medals after being a big hope on day one] prepared me very well for this moment – the home crowd and making the most of it and using it. In those two years I’ve learned a lot and matured a lot more. There’s always something else you can learn at the age of 24 in swimming. I’m forever learning.
“A lot of my old rivals are making a comeback, the [born in] ’89-’90 era, and it’s great to see because there are some good youngsters coming through and the senior swimmers are making a stand. It’s not just a young person’s sport any more, it’s anybody’s game – it’s just if you’ve got the heart and soul to fight for it.”
She has the heart and soul all right – perhaps the biggest heart, metaphorically speaking, in her sport. And she still has that Commonwealth title – one of the rare occasions on which a Scot has successfully defended their crown at this level.
But it would be misleading to call this a defence, successful or otherwise, for there was nothing defensive about Miley’s race. She attacked, she fought, she held nothing back. She stunned her opponents into submission – and sent her supporters into raptures.