EVERY single Scottish competitor will have to cope with the weight of expectation in Glasgow this summer, and no-one more than the swimmers.
For the past three Games some of our best performances have come in the pool, never more so than in 2006, when Caitlin McClatchey, David Carry and Gregor Tait won two gold medals each, and for a few glorious hours Scotland topped the medals table thanks to their efforts.
Add that record to the more recent achievements of people such as Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson, and it becomes understandable why some Scottish supporters will turn up to the Tollcross International Pool simply presuming they will witness home victories. That all amounts to a big psychological burden, but fortunately the squad are accustomed to it by now – none more so, perhaps, than Craig McNally.
The 21-year-old from Edinburgh was a relative latecomer to swimming, and will tell you that was because he first had to find out he was no good at all the other sports he tried. Whatever the truth of that, the reality is that the Scottish record-holder at the 200-metres backstroke is definitely quite good at swimming. What is more, he is also, by his own admission, quite accomplished at coping with the sort of pressure that the Games will bring.
“I got quite late into the sport, because I had so many other sports to do when I was younger,” McNally explained. “I knew I wanted to take up competitive swimming, but I kept on delaying it until a friend took it up when we were 11 so I just followed him into it.
“I’m not too good at ball sports. I really enjoy watching tennis although I can’t play it at all. If I had to choose another sport to do it would probably be athletics, because as I said my co-ordination for ball sports isn’t quite good enough.”
While he enjoyed trying out other sports, McNally had an inkling, even as a seven or eight-year-old, that swimming was the discipline for him. “I came into the sport because I enjoy the high-pressure situations,” he explained. “Even though I was shaking behind the blocks and scared to get in the pool, I also really wanted to get in there and show what I could do – race people that were better than me and try and beat them, or try and keep up with them. As long as you keep in mind what you’ve got to do, and not get overwhelmed by everything, that’s the key.
“I don’t seem to buckle under pressure. I just get on with it. I know there’s going to be a lot more pressure with the home crowd as well as millions more people watching on TV, but it’s not really affected me yet. For me it’s all about getting on with my own programme and keeping myself to myself until a competition, then hopefully using the pressure to spur me on during a race.”
McNally certainly used the pressure to good effect last summer, when he came sixth in the world championships in Barcelona. And he also rose to the occasion much earlier, when he competed in a major event for the first time, at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
“That was my first international meet and it was a really big learning experience for me getting a chance to race against other swimmers from around the world and being in an environment like the village. The biggest lesson was just how professional everyone was with everything from their stretching, to the hand gels they had brought out with them, to nutrition. I’d never really experienced anything like that before, so it opened my eyes to a new world of professionalism. I didn’t have any expectations when I went out there. I didn’t know how I’d perform in a different environment or how well everyone else would swim, so I just went there to see what happened. It was only really after Delhi that I started looking at results and rankings and seeing how I measured up against them.”
Twelfth in the 100m backstroke and 11th in the 200, which has now become his favourite event, McNally came closest to the podium in the medley relay. “We were fifth and not far off the Scottish record,” he recalled. “I was probably the weak leg in the relay, being the least experienced member of the team.
“It was really good to get into a final, even though I was the most nervous I’ve ever been and was shaking on the blocks. I remember being right next to England’s Liam Tancock, who is just about the best swimmer in the world at the 100 back, so it was a scary moment. I’ve met Liam a few times now and I get on quite well with him.”
In the 200 in Barcelona last year, the five swimmers who finished ahead of McNally were two Americans, a Pole and two Japanese. In other words, he was the first Commonwealth swimmer home, a fact which will be enough to have some people hanging a gold medal round his neck in their imaginations. Just as well, perhaps, that he enjoys the pressure.