Swimming: Craig Benson making early bid for 2014

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IT’S not the existence of an average teenager. Craig Benson is getting up for his first training session of the day as most lads his age are getting home from a night out.

And, when they hang out through the week, he is tucked up in bed, recharging the batteries ahead of another long day of ploughing through a gruelling training programme.

But, as the 18-year-old swimmer chats during the official launch of Team Scotland and speaks about the hunger to compete in front of a home crowd at next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he says he knows the choices he makes are necessary.

“Glasgow’s in the forefront of my mind constantly. When you’re getting up at the crack of dawn, you’re shattered and the last thing you want to do is get in a cold pool, but it’s thinking about Glasgow and why you’re swimming in the first place that helps you get up and go.”

Up at 4:15 every morning to fuel his body with porridge before leaving his home in Livingston for training at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool, by 5:30am he is poolside and that is his work place, his personal torture chamber, for the next few hours.

Now he can drive, life is simpler. Previously his poor dad Nigel got up to taxi him in and his mum Janice, a nurse, would collect him after her nightshift.

“I then go home, get some food, try to sleep to make up for the hours I’ve missed, then I’ll go to the gym at Heriot Watt and do some weights for 90 minutes until around three and then go back to the pool for another two and a half hours, and then home again.”

It’s an unrelenting slog and it got even tougher a few years ago. Despite the hard work and dedication Benson’s energy levels were low and his times suffered. “There was a point when I was thinking about stopping because my performance dipped and I was quite ill. I didn’t know why, I just felt fatigued all the time.

“It took a while and a few different doctors to find out I was intolerant to loads of different foods, and that was making me exhausted. It went on for about a year but, thankfully, the change in diet helped.”

Benson, it turned out, was a coeliac, suffering from gluten intolerance. “I was 15 when I was diagnosed and it was difficult to start with but finding the right food is OK now.”

In the pool the mindset is very much a can-do one but away from the pool, the list of can’t-dos is long. Just ask his friends.

“My classic quote is ‘I can’t, I’m training’. If there’s anything during the week, I can’t do it. I train five days a week and on a Saturday morning then have the rest of the weekend off if I’m not competing. That’s when I get to see my mates.

“When I was younger I don’t think my mates really understood why I couldn’t go out but the past few years, as we’ve got older, they understand the level I’m wanting to be at. And in London last year, they were all so much behind me on Twitter.

“Even for the trials for qualifying for London they all went to one of my mates’ houses to watch and ended up having a big party afterwards. They were buzzing for me, which is fantastic. Everyone’s already asking me for tickets for next summer and they’re not even released yet! Some of them are volunteering as well, though, which is great.”

But Benson is focusing on ensuring he is there. In his event, the 100m breaststroke, the standard is high. Domestically he is strong but not unchallenged. He broke the national record last year, and bettered it at the London Olympic Games, where he reached the semi-finals but, moments later, it was wrested from him by Michael Jamieson, who eventually went on to win silver over 200m.

“No-one is guaranteed a place. The qualifying times are out and I’m under all of them but you also need to finish in the top three. Breaststroke is really competitive and there are four or five guys who are going to be under the times. It’s about who can get the place on the day. It’s driving us all on, though.

“I definitely thrive on pressure, I often take my last chance at trials. I love to race and take people on. Racing’s why I do it.

“I really want to get a medal – most athletes will be competing to get on the podium. But the 100 breaststroke is probably one of the toughest in the Commonwealth. Some good Europeans and Americans won’t be there obviously, but there’s no avoiding the big guns. It’ll be competitive but that’s good because if I can get a medal at that level, then who knows, I can maybe get one at world level the year after.”

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