Glasgow 2014: Craig McNally has eyes on podium

Craig McNally trains at Edinburgh's Royal Commonwealth Pool. Picture: Greg Macvean
Craig McNally trains at Edinburgh's Royal Commonwealth Pool. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IN THE past, swimmer Craig McNally has been used to make up the numbers. In Delhi, he knew he was there simply for the Commonwealth Games experience, while the burden of bringing home the medals was shouldered by others.

But the expectation levels have burgeoned and, four years on, he is one of those expected to deliver for Team Scotland in Glasgow.

Having missed out on a place in the Great Britain team for the London Olympics in 2012 by just 0.1 seconds, he has spent this year doing everything in his power to ensure there will be no hard luck story come the next major event on home territory, next summer.

At August’s World Championships, he finished sixth in the men’s 200m backstroke behind the likes of Americans Ryan Lochte and the Olympic gold medallist Tyler Clary.

“The initial goal was just to qualify for the World Championships, which was a big step for me, and the progress through each stage, to the semis and then the final and then see what I could do so to finish sixth has definitely given me a big boost, especially competing against the best in the world, and it has spurred me on. It was a big achievement.”

That meet in Barcelona was the first major senior event for McNally, still just 20, granting the result even more significance. But he now knows he has to back that up. As the top Commonwealth swimmer to finish that race, it bodes well for a podium place in Glasgow, with the top step a realistic aim.

This week he travels to Denmark for the European Short Course Championships, one of only three Scots on the GB team, along with Michael Jamieson and Hannah Miley. It is a sign of how far he has progressed in a relatively short time. Missing out on London was a brutal blow to absorb, but the part time accountancy and finance student reveals the disappointment has long since been turned into a source of inspiration.

“I was so close to making the team and, at the time, I was really devastated but, talking it through with my coach, it had still been a positive year,” says the Warrender club athlete, who spends hours every day training at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool.

This week he will face Radoslaw Kawecki, who set a new European long-course record as he secured silver in the World Championships. But, while chasing him down is one of McNally’s targets, the bigger priority is performance. With more turns required throughout the 200m in the short course tournaments, it gives him the opportunity to fine tune a technical part of the race which can make or break medal hopes. “In a regular race you can spend up to 30 per cent of your time under water, it jumps to 60 per cent in short course, so we use the short-course season to work on the technical side in preparation for the start of the long-course season which starts in the new year.”

That means a busy end to 2013 for the Edinburgh athlete. With the Euros staged from 12-15 December, he will return to Scotland in time for the Europe v USA Duel in the Pool, swimming’s version of the Ryder Cup, at Tollcross in Glasgow, the venue for next summer’s swimming, on 20 and 21 December.

After the atmosphere generated by the partisan British crowd in London – despite missing out on competing, he is glad he went along to sample the excitement – McNally expects a similarly enthusiastic crowd in Glasgow.

The Duel in the Pool provides the swimmers and spectators the perfect warm up. With both teams able to enter up to four competitors in each race, McNally is likely to join forces with Kawecki against the likes of Clary and Co and the prospect is a mouth watering one for the young Scot.

“It will be brilliant chance to compete against some of the best in the world. I watched the Duel in the Pool a few years ago and I knew I wanted to take part in it at some stage of my life.”

A relatively late starter in competitive swimming, having tagged along with a friend when he was 11, McNally refuses to place individuals on a pedestal by referring to them as heroes. However, it is the USA who have provided the swimming superstars such as Michael Phelps and Lochte, who he concedes are role models.

These days, though, the likes of Lochte is also a peer. “I’m getting used to swimming against some of the bigger names and I’m not letting it faze me. I think I handle the pressure quite well.”

That pressure will increase if McNally can win a medal in Denmark or catch the eye of the home crowd in Glasgow. He has already been pigeon-holed as a medal prospect and, with swimming early on the Commonwealth billing, the team is expected to deliver.

“In Delhi I saw others getting gold and it was an emotional time and I want to be one of those getting the medals in Glasgow,” he said.

“My performance in the worlds places me first in the Commonwealth, so there is some extra pressure but it’s nice because it also proves I can go after the gold medal.

“I don’t really get the chance to forget about the Commonwealth Games. It’s a home nation games and it will be special for all the Scottish athletes and fans, so there’s a lot of focus on that but that’s what keeps you going through the hard training sessions.”