WINNING a major race can take years, if not more, of meticulous preparation. Losing it can be accomplished in mere minutes immediately before the event.
Hannah Miley, who bids tonight to defend her Commonwealth title in the 400-metres individual medley, knows those minutes well. They are spent in the call room, where all swimmers have to report while the races immediately before their own are taking place. They can be the loneliest minutes of a swimmer’s season – although that is not necessarily a bad thing. They can present you with unwanted distractions, not all of which are accidental. And, no matter your physical prowess, they can strip you of your power to prevail.
“The call room is an interesting place,” said Miley, who at only 24 is about to compete at her third Commonwealth Games. “Races can be won and lost in call rooms.
“You can be physically at your peak, you can be in the best form of your life, but the one part that could possibly lose you a medal is your psychology.
“Quite a lot of people in call rooms can crumble just with the pressure they can put on themselves or what other competitors are doing to try and put them off. If somebody did a study on psychology and the atmosphere of what happens in a call room, it would be very intriguing.”
For Miley, the key to emerging from the call room with your hopes intact is to be prepared for all the possible varieties of weird behaviour that your rivals might exhibit. If you are thrown for just a few moments by something unexpected and outlandish, your medal hopes might have slipped out of your hands.
“You get quite a few going in with their headphones on,” she said. “They don’t talk and that’s fine. Sometimes that puts people off, because you know they’re determined and focused.
“Those who aren’t prepared for that might be put off and be quite frightened. It is quite scary seeing an athlete who’s completely determined and focused.
“They have this stony look on their face and you know they’re going to give it everything they’ve got. If someone is distracted for a moment and looks at that, it might frighten them a bit. You get others who might come up and just constantly talk to you.
“Even though you’re sitting there trying to calm yourself down to be in the zone, you can’t get to that point because someone is chatting away to you.
“You can get some people – it’s probably more of a macho thing – where they just slap their backs or start doing stretches. Some of the girls can be really flexible. One girl just did the splits against the wall. A lot of the girls were like ‘I can’t do that’.
“There are just little things that can take your eye off the ball for maybe a couple of seconds. As soon as they’ve done that it can have an effect.”
While Miley has been one of the dominant world figures in her event for some years now, it is a position which has not come naturally to her. Still slightly built even after years of exhausting hard work, at around 5ft 5in she is also several inches shorter than most of her top-level opponents.
One way of coping, of telling herself that is not an insuperable disadvantage, is to envisage herself as the kind of competitor who is not outshone by others just because of their greater height.
“I do see myself as a terrier,” she explained. “I’m small and as soon as I bite onto something I don’t let go. With the individual medley I might be small, I might not be as big as some of the other girls, but I’ll certainly give it a good fight.
“I’ll give it everything I’ve got in my race. In some ways I quite like that, because I’m not the normal height. It’s an unusual thing. I guess even though I’m not as tall as them – most of the girls in my race average about 5ft 8 to 5ft 11 – and some of them are quite a lot heavier than me.”
Miley is among the first Scots in action this morning, with her heat due off a little after 10.30. And, presuming she qualifies safely, as she should, she will be among the first Scots to make a serious challenge for gold when her final takes place around 7pm. Fellow Scot Michael Jamieson is also seeking gold – and a possible world record – today in the 200-metre breaststroke.
Miley was in a similarly pressurised position in London, having been positioned alongside Mark Cavendish as one of the great British hopes for gold. In the event, neither the swimmer nor the cyclist got among the medals, but two years on, Miley is more experienced, wiser, and a more complete competitor. “Going in as the underdog or the odd one out, I’ve always liked being a little bit different. I do think it makes you stand out and I don’t like following the crowd,” she added.
“I like doing things a little bit differently, a little bit tougher, and it’s certainly a lot harder being so much smaller than everyone else. But I’ve worked on my strengths and hopefully working on my weaknesses as well to make sure they aren’t as weak for others to take advantage of.”