IN TOP-LEVEL sport, few things are set in stone. If Hannah Miley ever doubted that, then her experiences at last year’s London Olympics, where the reigning Commonwealth champion started as one of the 400m individual medley favourites following her world championship silver only to come a disappointing fifth, certainly proved the veracity of that truism.
Yet at the world championships in Barcelona this week, it’s a racing certainty that the cheery 23-year-old from Inverurie will run up against her nemesis, Ye Shiwen. It will be almost exactly a year since the Chinese teenager claimed Olympic gold in dramatic fashion, the 16-year-old finishing almost three seconds ahead of second-placed Elisabeth Biesel and almost six seconds faster than Miley.
It was such a startling performance by Ye – swimming seven seconds faster than at the previous year’s world championship, she smashed the world record and her final length was faster than that of her gold medal-winning counterpart Ryan Lochte in the second-fastest male 400IM swim in history – that, given China’s record of doping its swimmers, her achievement was questioned by many seasoned observers. But despite Ye’s swim being called “unbelievable” by swimmers such as Stephanie Rice, anti-doping campaigners like John Leonard and sports scientists such as Rob Tucker, Miley, who herself exploded on to the scene by beating the home-town favourites at the world championships in Budapest, staunchly defended her Chinese competitor.
“A year on, I still have that perspective,” she says, pointing out that no-one is accusing 15-year-old American gold medallist Katie Ledecky of doping even though she took 15 seconds off her personal best before the Olympics. “I’m not one to be brash and to point the finger, as so many people did straight after the race. As an athlete I like to thank the other competitors and to shake their hand, and it’s a shame that some people want to tarnish the moment for anyone who does really well.
“I remember being that age, when sometimes you’d improve your personal best by ten seconds, and so I like to think that she swam clean, that it was just an incredible day for her. I may not have won a medal but as long as I give 100 per cent I’m satisfied. I’m a happy-go-lucky person and I don’t want to hold a grudge – it just ends up diminishing you, not them. I’m determined to stay grounded and not be bothered by things like this that I can’t change.”
If Miley can never alter what happened in London, she is nevertheless in with a fighting chance of gaining revenge at Barcelona, where as well as Ye she will also face rivals such as Biesel and fellow American tyro Maya DiRado, home favourite Mireia Belmonte Garcia, and the Hungarian duo of Katinka Hosszu and Zsuzsanna Jakabos.
Since London, the Scot has been in imperious form. After a 16-day break, and with the world championships and the Commonwealth Games in her sights, she redoubled her efforts, doing more work out of the pool and enduring a dozen exhausting pool sessions a week with father and coach Patrick Miley. The results have been impressive: she posted the fastest time in the world this year at 4:34.21, and then won gold at the European Short Course Championships in France before beating Ye to take gold at the World Short Course Championships in Istanbul in December in a European record time of 4:23.14.
Beating Ye was, she admitted, a red-letter day in her career. “It was nice to get that scalp and good to know that I can beat the Olympic champion,” she said. “That said, short-course [25-metre pools] is so different to long-course [held in 50-metre pools] that it’s almost like a different sport, and I’ve no doubt that she’ll be back in heavy training and ready to take me on in Barcelona. She did well at her national trials and will be in top form in Spain.”
Yet Miley believes she can now handle the pressure. Indeed, she’s longing to get back to competing in front of a big, passionate crowd. “I’ve been around the block a few times, to have made a lot of mistakes and to have learned a whole heap of lessons,” she says. “One of them is that sometimes in a high-pressure environment things just don’t go your way and you have an off day, which is what happened to me at the Olympics.
“The first time I really felt that pressure was at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, where the expectations of me were huge after I’d just unexpectedly beaten the home-town favourites at the world championships. There was some adversity in there too: I got Delhi belly, the pool went cloudy and the water was freezing, but I still came through. That smile at the end [when she won gold] was as much one of relief as of happiness, because it was a huge learning curve for me. What I found was that these big events are all about meeting your own expectations of yourself, not other people’s.”
Miley’s 100mph chat is punctuated by references to the Commonwealth Games, and she believes Scotland could field a surprisingly large number of exceptional young swimmers. In the breaststroke, nine of the 16 mens semi-finalists at the recent British Championships were Scots, while the women are similarly strong. Indeed, Barcelona could witness a preview of one of the great Commonwealth match-ups as Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson goes head-to-head with Stirling’s Ross Murdoch, who not only beat Jamieson for the second time this year to win the 100m breaststroke at the British Championships, but posted the world’s third fastest time to do it.
Those two are joined in Barcelona by well-established Scots Craig McNally, Robbie Renwick, Jak Scott and Dan Wallace, but Miley is even more excited by the talented young Scots who she believes can still come through in time for Glasgow 2014. She picks out Suleman Butt, Duncan Scott, Charlotte McKenzie, Kirsty Simpson and Raquel Matos for mentions in dispatches. More will emerge, she believes, once the ten-lane 50-metre pool opens in Aberdeen next year.
The most important two tyros for Miley, however, are 15-year-old beanpole Joey and 18-year-old Alastair, two backstroke specialists who also happen to be her little brothers. She trains with them every day, and says they’re the secret to her success. “They keep it fun and keep me focused because no matter how proud I am of them, no-one wants to get beaten by their little brothers,” she laughs. “I’m very family-focused, and they’re part of this huge support network that has allowed me to stay in the north-east and finish my degree this week [a BSc in sports and exercise science from Robert Gordons University], has kept me sane, and kept me away from all the politics so that I can just focus on training.”
Whether or not Joey and Alastair come through in time for Glasgow is one thing, but if they fulfil the talent which Miley believes they possess and make it to Rio, they’ll probably be competing alongside big sister. “I should still be going by then,” she laughs. “I’m 23 now, but age is just a number to me. If Ryan Lochte and Kirsty Coventry can be winning medals at 28, then why not me? I’ve got a positive mindset, I still love this sport and I feel that this isn’t the end of my story. Besides, I’ve got plenty of unfinished business.”
Starting, one suspects, with Ye in Barcelona.