UPS and downs in the life of a swimmer are not confined to practitioners of breaststroke. It’s just that two Scots breaststrokers have bobbed in and out of the good times notably in the past 12 months.
Michael Jamieson won an Olympic silver medal in the 200 metres in London last year, only to be left crestfallen by his failure to repeat the trick at last month’s World Championships in Barcelona.
Craig Benson had sprung a major surprise by defeating Jamieson and Kris Gilchrist over 100m to qualify for those London Games.
But this year, burdened for the first time by expectation at the British trials for Barcelona, he fell short and had to watch Ross Murdoch prove his own emerging prominence with a gold medal in a new Scottish record.
There are any number of candidates to win 100m breaststroke gold at next summer’s Commonwealth Games, but Benson, the 19-year-old from Livingston, has enjoyed such a serene rise through the ranks that it would surprise few in the sport if he lit up the Glasgow Games.
Having won a world youth title in 2011, Benson’s wealth of potential was easier to identify than anything seen in Jamieson at the same age, when Gilchrist was the Scots breaststroker tipped to be the best since David Wilkie.
Benson has come so far so quickly that time could well prove him to be the best since Wilkie. And there is even a possibility that he could upstage Jamieson next summer when the Glasgow man hoists all the expectations of his hometown crowd onto his shoulders.
If Benson does end up going head-to-head with Jamieson and winning, it won’t bring any specific satisfaction. They will be team-mates, after all.
Benson said: “Obviously I’d want the Scotland team to do as well as possible so, if I had a choice, I would rather beat the English lads than Michael because we are on the same team. But, although it’s a team sport, it’s the Commonwealth Games, it’s also an individual thing and you’ve got to focus on your own performances. I just want to try to beat whoever is in the pool.”
There are plenty of sessions at Tollcross that will fizz with interest for the home crowd, but the 100m and 200m breaststroke finals could very well turn out to be the hottest tickets on offer. The Scots trio have serious rivals from England in the shape of Andrew Willis, Adam Peaty and Robert Holderness.
Benson can only see positives in this concentration of talent. “It’s strange because, normally, we’re all on the same team but, when it comes to the race, we’re all rivals and we race each other all the time at trials and stuff, so we know how each other races and how we all respond to how certain things go in the season,” he said. “It’s only a good thing, really, and I kind of feel as though we can all help each other out and support each other. It’s only going to make us go further.”
Apart from technique and athleticism, the most impressive thing about Benson is his maturity. He buys into the Confucius theory that the greatest glory comes in how man rises from a fall, and has even convinced himself that finishing fourth and fifth in his two British finals this year was a good thing. It did, of course, remove some of the hype that was beginning to envelop him.
“Although I didn’t make the team for the World Championships, this season has actually been very much a positive,” he added. “Although you learn things from experience, I’ve learned a heck of a lot more from not achieving what I set out to achieve at a trials than I did in probably my whole swimming career.
“It’s been a massive positive for me not making the team, really, because I know I can bounce back from it.
“I had a disappointing trials and then, a few weeks later, went to Portugal and swam a season’s best in my 100, and then went on to Sheffield and swam a PB in my 200 and another season’s best in my 100. I was kind of proud of myself to be able to bounce back rather than go into a bit of a hole. But I’m just excited for next season now.”
So what are Benson’s own expectations for next season, with Glasgow looming large?
“In the 100m, there’s a world-record holder who is lying first [Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa], and second is an Olympic silver medallist [Christian Sprenger of Australia]. So the top two are really strong, but the bronze medal is really up for grabs in that event,” he says.
“I’m kind of thinking my best medal chance might be in the 200 but I still feel as though I’m a 100 swimmer. I’d like to focus on both and try and get a medal in both events.”