Hannah Miley: It’s the most solitary sport you can do … it’s just you in your own head

Hannah Miley is ready to go for gold again on the Gold Coast. Picture Jeff Holmes
Hannah Miley is ready to go for gold again on the Gold Coast. Picture Jeff Holmes
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Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch will be reigning Commonwealth champions no more tomorrow morning, merely two aspirants with titles to defend. Gold medallists from Glasgow 2014, the swimmers will be among the first of Scotland’s competitors with a chance of landing medals on the opening day of Gold Coast 2018. Each hoping the investments made over the winter will be repaid in the open-air pool at the Optus Aquatic Centre.

For Miley, winning the 400 metres individual medley for the third successive Games brings a shot at history. Having success and failure sit so closely, separated by fractions of a second as when she came fourth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it touches on the deepest parts of one’s psyche, the 28-year-old acknowledges.

If Murdoch has honestly unpeeled the layers of trauma generated by pushing body against mind, then even the seemingly carefree Miley confesses her sport can mess with your head. “It’s probably the most solitary sport you could do,” she declares.

“When you run, you can chat to people in between reps, you can talk and have a laugh, listen to music. In swimming, it’s just you in your own head, watching a black line. You’ve got your team-mates around you, but you can’t necessarily talk, whilst you’re still swimming, and if you try and time your talking between your rest, you’re going to get less rest, because you’re wasting more oxygen, that you really, really need at that moment in time.”

Close bonds are still developed, she says. It can drive the emotions hugely high but also devastatingly low. If things go well, the celebrations are intense. “And if things aren’t right, your frustration shows,” she adds.

“I think a really emotional athlete really does show – and highlight just the amount of care that they put into what they do. Everybody’s different, some people can appear, or find ways of controlling it better. It might appear emotionless, but they probably aren’t behind closed doors.”

Last summer, Miley presided over a masterclass for young hopefuls. The questions ranged from serious to silly, about life and love and medals. One 11-year-old, she recounts, caught her off-guard. “She just said, ‘Is it worth it?’

“And yeah, it has, it really, really has. I think because I went in with no expectation of, ‘Right I’m going to go and achieve this, go and do that.’ You set goals, which I think is important, but to be able to travel the world with a group of people and make friends, and meet people from different nationalities, experience different cultures, swimming in so many different pools. It really has opened my eyes up, and allowed me to experience a lot of things that I know not many other people would get to experience.”

Not, however, tonight’s Opening Ceremony, like so many of her colleagues taking the plunge on Day 1. Miley will dive in first, quickly followed by Olympic medallist Stephen Milne in the 400m freestyle while later Murdoch will join Craig Benson and Calum Tait in the 200m 
breaststroke.

Bereft of a place in a final at Rio 2016, Murdoch had to confront his failure even when it felt like conscious torture. The two years since have been tough but instructive.

“One thing I definitely learned from the run into Rio, was that you don’t have to be great every day,” he relates. “You need to take the highs and lows out of swimming because it is a tough life that we lead. Some people see it as easy: there’s a lot of travelling, you get to see the world and do different bits.

“But it ain’t an easy life and I think you can see a lot of people who’ve retired from the sport and they’re burnt out and they take the wrong path, and stuff. I think one of the things you need to do is take out the mental and emotional highs and lows from sport. That’ll definitely help in the long run.”

Renewing their Commonwealth lease for another four years would be an undiluted boon.

But to win, says Miley, you need to be prepared to lose. Hobson’s Choice. “Everything happens for a reason. And I can choose how I respond and deal with it.”