Glasgow 2014: Michael Jamieson walking on air

Michael Jamieson cuts a dramatic pose on Loch Lomond. Picture: Alistair Devine
Michael Jamieson cuts a dramatic pose on Loch Lomond. Picture: Alistair Devine
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MICHAEL Jamieson is not just another ambassador for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. He is the ambassador supreme, the working-class Glaswegian whose face and highly sculpted body have been used for much of the organising committee’s promotional output.

He turned on the official countdown clock in Central Station recently, oozing charisma. Next we will be telling you that he can walk on water.

An Olympic silver medallist but not yet a bona fide household name, we are inclined to predict there will be a surge of ‘MJ mania’ if he fulfils expectations and kickstarts the Team Scotland effort with one or even two gold medals, because he has the charisma to say and do all the right things and become very popular indeed.

Imagine the alarm it would cause, then, if Michael Jamieson failed to qualify for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

This is not, we hasten to add, a very likely outcome of the trials that get under way on Thursday. Up to three Scots can be selected for any swimming event, and those who do not have a good Scottish Championships can set the record straight at the British trials back at Tollcross Park the following week, which serve as a parachute.

Jamieson, who made his name in London 20 months ago, is still demonstrably the best in Britain in the 200 metres breaststroke, where he would feature in any expert’s quick pick of the best in the world. These trials are going to be fiercely competitive, though, and the 25-year-old is not tossing phoney compliments to his would-be domestic rivals when he underlines that.

There is such a surfeit of talent in both Scotland and England that the two best races that take place in any sport in the 20th Commonwealth Games could both be men’s breaststroke races, with the 100m almost impossible to call from this distance. Jamieson considers this summer to be the most important of his life, and the 24 July beginning of his Glasgow quest is still further away than he would like, but, in the Scottish and British trials, he will be provided with an intense, prolonged examination that could rival any competitive experience he has known since meeting Daniel Gyurta at the wall in that extraordinary Olympic final.

“There are a couple of guys who have been swimming really fast in the 100 this season, so it will be interesting to see if I can still give them a run for their money in the short event,” said Jamieson in a bar overlooking Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square. “Adam Peaty and Ross Murdoch – it will be a good race between those two this summer.

“Everyone is so closely packed. Statistically, Scotland is the strongest nation in the world in 100m breaststroke just now, which is unbelievable. I think the third-ranked Scottish guy on paper just now is 60.0 [seconds], and that would have been top ten in London. It’s crazy, but it’s great for the sport and it’s great for Team Scotland. Fingers crossed all three of us will be swimming that event, and we should all be making the final.”

“All three of us” means Jamieson, Stirling-based Murdoch and Livingston’s Craig Benson, who was the bolter who booked an unexpected British 100m berth for London 2012. Murdoch’s breakthrough came last summer when he won the British two-lap title and ducked under 60secs for the first time. Peaty is the next big thing from the southern shires, another sub-minute man, and the concurrent emergence of all these fast young bucks is making Jamieson feel old.

“I’m struggling to match those guys,” he says. “I got to swim the 100m in London because Dan Sliwinski was injured, and they brought me in and I finished ninth, which was a great result for me on that event. But it’s always a work in progress.

“With my stroke, my physiological make-up, I’m built to swim the 200. Trying to change that is difficult: if it takes me one year to make 0.2secs of a gain in the 200, it takes me two years to make that gain on the 100. That’s the way I have to think about approaching that event, and I need to drop a lot of time this year if I’m going to be in the mix on the 100. But it is always going to be a warm-up event, for me, for the 200.”

Jamieson impresses everybody he meets. He is grounded, which in Glasgow is mandatory, but, at the same time, worldly. He can talk to civic leaders with the range that they favour as easily as blether to teenagers in the urban patois that is their only tongue.

As far as distractions go, he is into house music and Celtic, but, above all, he is in love with swimming, with the training and the racing and the satisfaction of an investment that has paid off. He has given everything to his sport and it has made him a star, but, through it all, he has managed to retain all of his humility. He still pinches himself when he sees his face alongside those of athletes he considers to be inhabitants of a higher celestial level. But he is, gradually, getting used to the star treatment.

“You want to be competing at the top level and with that comes expectation and pressure. Thus far, I think I’ve managed it okay,” he says. “I’m up on the first day in Glasgow and I’ve got a responsibility there for the rest of the team, for everyone that’s supported me in the last few years. I want to be ready on day one to deliver the result everyone is looking for, because it is a big day. Day one of a home games sets the precedent for the rest of the Games for Team Scotland.”

Another indicator of Jamieson’s level-headedness comes when he is quizzed about his inspirations. It turns out he has found Rebecca Cooke, Gregor Tait, Kris Gilchrist and Kirsty Balfour, who were the big fish in Caledonian swimming waters in the mid-to-late 2000s, to be his most profound influences – not Henrik Larsson and Paul Lambert, nor even Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe.

“I’ve never been one for following the standard sporting idols. I love a lot of the stories in boxing, guys who have come from very humble backgrounds and have just had the drive to get to the top, stories that are a bit more obscure and don’t get the limelight as much,” he explains. “For a lot of athletes, you have a mutual respect for people that have the same level of commitment and dedication. They are in it for medals and for records. I admire that in any athlete.”

One of the reasons Jamieson, whose career has taken him from Edinburgh to Paris to Bath, has retained such close links with Glasgow is that he is very close to his family. The gene pool was good to him. His dad, Michael Snr, was a footballer whose goals and permed hair are still recalled by some Alloa fans. His mother, Jacqueline, was the swimmer in the family and his 21-year-old sister, Lauren, is forging a potentially spectacular career of her own.

“My sister is at the Urdang Academy in London. She is doing really well as it’s a really prestigious dance school,” he says. “I was watching her at an exhibition called ‘Move It’ which is a showcase of all the London dance schools. Lauren was in Urdang’s exhibition which had 25 or 30 dancers but only four first years, and she was one of them. She is doing really well, really enjoying it, moving away from home as well.

“A few years ago I think she used to really struggle with performing on stage. I think I managed to help her a little bit in ways like that – and it’s the same from Lauren. She is really laid-back and, in that profession, you have to be laid-back and relaxed to perform at your best. She gives me advice on bits and pieces that she does to prepare.”

This comment seemed worthy of further investigation. What can an Olympic medallist learn from a dancer? Jamieson’s response confirmed once and for all that he has the ability to please a crowd, and that few who tune in to his poolside interviews this summer are likely to be turned off.

“I’ve been trying to learn to moonwalk for about five years. But she’s got no patience teaching me how to dance. The number of times I’ve asked her to teach me a couple of moves...” he said, more ruefully than mischievously.

“Being a swimmer, I’ve got no coordination or rotation skills, so I’m absolutely hopeless. She has a lot of work to do with me.”

Lauren Jamieson may have her work cut out, but her brother has certainly done the hard graft and reached a grade in charm school that allows his management company to put their feet up.