Alison Sheppard sets a high bar for Scots swimmers

Alison Sheppard. Picture: Contributed
Alison Sheppard. Picture: Contributed
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IT WAS over in seconds and, as Alison Sheppard turned to look at the scoreboard, she was convinced she had just clinched a gold medal.

“But when I looked at the clock I saw I’d been pipped by one tenth of a second. Sue Rolph of England had won gold. But it was my first major medal,” recalls the Scottish swimmer.

That was in the 50m freestyle, in Kuala Lumpur, and this week the Queen’s Baton relay travels through the Maldives, Singapore and on into Malaysia, the host of those 1998 Commonwealth Games.

It was the one and only time the Games have been staged there and it was an event Sheppard will never forget.

“It’s true that when you are at these major events, you don’t get to see much of the cities. You are in the competitive bubble and I wasn’t at the opening or closing ceremonies in Kuala Lumpur but I did like it there and it has happy memories.

“It wasn’t classed as an outdoor pool but there was just a cover over the top so there was still a breeze coming in and I remember everything about the final. I remember looking out at the crowd from behind the blocks and seeing the team cheering for me.

“There was no pressure on my shoulders that day because although I had been competing for years and had been part of teams but I hadn’t reached my potential yet so I wasn’t on the radar when it came to who might win. Afterwards, it was my first experience of a major medal ceremony. I didn’t cry – I don’t think I’ve ever cried on the medal rostrum – I was too happy.

“It was a special feeling to finally be up there and to have the parade round the pool afterwards.

“When you look back, that time looks quite pedestrian now but getting under 26 seconds back then was quite an achievement, so I was still happy with the silver.

“I was 25 so I was quite a late developer in terms of getting among the medals but it justified the training we had been doing and gave me something to build on and I won the gold in Manchester in 2002. I suppose you could say it was the start of my ‘glory years’.”

Crucially at that time, it was also the vindication of everything Sheppard and her coach Gary Vandermeulen had been doing. The pair are now married and have three sons, but, even then, they were an impressive duo.

Having been one of the first to benefit from lottery funding, in 1995, Sheppard was able to quit her job at a bank and focus on full-time training.

After the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta she decided to move to Canada where she teamed up with Vandermeulen.

“We decided to just focus on sprint training and strength and speed work rather than hours and hours of repetitive hours in the pool. At that time everyone thought it was all about endurance but getting my medal in KL proved we were doing something right. We blazed a trail for people follow.” Sheppard continued to swim at the top level for another seven years after those Games and she attributes the medal success and the longevity to the switch in approach.

“It wasn’t just mindless metres in the pool which can be boring and aren’t necessary for the sprints. But that was definitely Gary’s idea, so credit him with that.”

In Malaysia the Scottish medal count amounted to 12, only three of them gold. Sheppard was the only medallist in the pool. It is in stark contrast to subsequent Games where the pool offered plenty of performances to celebrate and podium placings, with 2014 likely to serve up several opportunities for the Glasgow crowds to hail home heroes.

“It will be special for those taking part. It was always great to swim for Scotland and the Commonwealth Games was the pinnacle of that,” added Sheppard.

“But it isn’t just about the people who medal. We have to remember there is a small pool of people who win medals at this level. There aren’t that many to go around but the Commonwealth Games are an excellent chance for people who are still on the fringes of the GB team to get a taste of national competition and it gives them experience that they can build on. In front of a home crowd, they will enjoy a great atmosphere.”

Manchester, four years after that first major medal success, was as close as it got to home advantage for Sheppard. Family and friends had travelled south and there was no longer any chance of her slipping under the radar.

She spoke after that gold medal triumph about the nerves that gripped her on the starting block, the struggle she had with her shaking hands as she fought to get her goggles on and the weight of expectation she had to shrug off as she dived into the pool for a single length burst of sheer power and determination.

There are others who will shoulder that burden in the Tollcross pool next summer. And Sheppard only wishes she could get her kids in to see them.

“I will be working there but we applied for so many tickets across so many sports as a family and didn’t get any of them but I would love the kids to experience what it is all about.

“I don’t have my medals in a display facing you the minute you come in the house but they are in a frame in the back room so the boys know all about my career and Gary is a former Olympian as well and my sister and my parents are all involved in swimming so it’s in the family.”

The two oldest boys, seven-year-old Grier and six-year-old Logan, have followed keenly in their wake, but she says they haven’t been pushed in that direction, and like four-year-old Fraser, they have been encouraged to sample several sports.

But swimming still provides a career, with the couple running the Sheppard Swim School, which has centres around the country and covers basic swimming lessons as well as individual coaching for the more elite swimmers.

“But I leave the coaching to Gary. I do the admin from home and that way it fits around the boys.”

But the memories of her first major medal, in Malaysia, stay with her. “People think it is always about Australia or USA in the pool but at Commonwealth Games level others get the chance to compete for medals and it can be the start of something special.”

That day in Kuala Lumpur proved the springboard to bigger and better things for Sheppard.

It was also the verification she needed that the faith she had placed in her coach was justified. Their training blazed a trail through the sprint world but it was her medal success that blazed a trail for other Scottish swimmers to follow, with many more hoping to secure their place on the rostrum next year.