Interview: Hannah Miley, swimmer and Olympic hopeful

Swimmer and Olympic hopeful Hannah Miley
Swimmer and Olympic hopeful Hannah Miley
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INVERURIE can’t offer Hannah Miley the facilities her rivals enjoy but it’s a price worth paying, she tells Paul Forsyth

AT JUST 5ft 5in, and 8st 4lbs, Hannah Miley is not the biggest athlete who will compete in this summer’s Olympic Games. Neither does the 22-year-old – still based in Inverurie, the Aberdeenshire market town where she grew up – have on her doorstep the kind of scientific resources available to her far-flung rivals. If she can win the gold medal that many are tipping her for in London this summer, she will have done it by swimming against the tide.

Hannah Miley competing in the Women's 400m Individual Medley final during the British Gas Swimming Championships in London. Picture: Getty

Hannah Miley competing in the Women's 400m Individual Medley final during the British Gas Swimming Championships in London. Picture: Getty

Which is just as Miley likes it. She made the decision many years ago to forsake the facilities enjoyed by her main rivals – Elizabeth Beisel and Stephanie Rice, of Florida and Brisbane respectively – so that she could remain with her family, and more particularly, with her father, Patrick, who also happens to be her coach. She chose to pursue her Olympic dream in the kind of surroundings that others would regard as a disadvantage.

When her fellow elite swimmers venture north to visit, they are surprised first of all by how far away she is, but also by the local baths, where Miley’s work has made her the world No.1 for the 400m individual medley. There is nothing wrong with Inverurie Swimming Centre, but sharing its four-lane, 25m pool with the general public is a bit like Graeme Obree breaking the world record with a bike made from parts of an old washing machine.

“For each of my competitors, it’s all about the facilities, the environments they are in, whereas I made the tough decision to stay where I am,” says Miley. “I could have easily gone to a high-performance facility elsewhere, but my gut instinct was to stay here. You don’t need to have the best facilities in the world as long as you have the best coach for you. That’s the main thing. And, for me, my dad is the best coach.

“We make do with what we’ve got. It makes you appreciate it when you have the chance to use a long-course 50m pool, or when you go to somewhere like Stirling for sports science or psychology, but when you come back here, it reminds you not to be distracted by all that. You can have all the technology and science in the world behind you, but there is no substitute for good old-fashioned grit, for getting in there and working hard.”

Patrick Miley, a helicopter pilot and swimming freak who has worked with five-times Olympic champion Ian Thorpe, moved the family to Scotland when Hannah, born in Swindon, was just a few months old. Away from the bright lights and the big cities, he and his daughter have fostered in each other an underdog mentality, so much so that they have cited on numerous occasions the parallel with Rocky, the fictional boxer whose training regime involved punching meat carcasses in a Philadelphia freezer.

Miley’s determination to prove herself is a product of her upbringing. “My dad’s side of the family is Irish so I definitely have Celtic blood in me. The Irish are all about being the last man standing. But all I can remember is being brought up in Scotland so I feel very much Scottish. And Scotland is about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. Having that spirit inside me has made me quite determined, maybe a little bit stubborn. I’m always trying to show people that nothing is impossible. It’s only impossible if you think it is.”

Miley is from a close-knit family, which also serves as motivation. When she won gold at the 2010 European Championships in Budapest, the first image that flashed through her head on the podium was of her late grandfather, who had expressed regret shortly before he died that he would never see her swim. Her two younger brothers, Alistair and Joseph, moved her almost to tears with comments they made on Facebook after she won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She also swims for another younger brother, Thomas, who died on the day he was born. She says she wants to make up for not going to his grave often enough when she was younger.

“Whenever I’ve done my swimming, I’ve noticed that the more successful I’ve become, the more exciting it’s been for my family. One of the best things ever was when I came back from a recent world championships and got a huge hug from my brothers. They were so excited. I appreciate having my family around me because I know the sacrifices that they’ve made. If they’ve given up so much to help me with my swimming, the least I can do is take them on a journey that not many families get to go on.”

Her father was the one, more than any other, that she needed to take with her, hence the decision to stay in Inverurie. Patrick Miley, a former soldier and triathlete, was a decent swimmer in his youth, and in his subsequent role as a coach he invented the Aquapacer, a metronomic device that allowed swimmers to control their speed.

As both a loving father and a driven coach to Hannah, it has not been easy. He once pushed her so hard that she punched a wall in the hope that a minor injury would be a distraction from the existing pain. “I don’t think I’ll ever really know how it works, but it does, and we’re not the only parent-child sporting relationship,” says Hannah. “Seb Coe was coached by his dad. So was Sharon Davies, who also did the 400m individual medley. Then you’ve got Andy Murray, who was coached by his mum.”

Relationships such as those are not normal – whatever that means – but then neither is Miley. By definition, she cannot be better than everyone else and also the same as them. “It’s intriguing because everybody is different... I just like being a bit extra different. I always turned up at school from training with wet hair. When the rest of the kids were out wandering the streets of Inverurie at lunchtime, I would go to the library. I wasn’t one for following the crowd. I’m not quite sure why I had that in me. I guess I just wanted to define myself as an individual and set myself apart from everyone else.”

She has done a pretty good job of it. This year was the sixth consecutive one in which she has triumphed in the 200m IM and the 400m IM at the British Championships. Her time in the 400 was quicker than that with which she won a silver medal at the World Championships in 2011. Having finished sixth at the Beijing Olympics, the question is not so much whether she can win a medal in London as which colour it will be.

The 400m IM final is on the first Saturday of the Games. If Miley wins gold, quite possibly Britain’s first of the 2012 Olympics, she will instantly become a household name. It is a distracting thought, one that she could do without as she completes her preparations for the biggest challenge of her life.

Inverurie, at least, has shielded her from the hype that is reaching fever pitch in London. “We had a camp down there in April, and everywhere you turned, there were billboards, people talking about it on the TV... it was really in your face. The more people talk about it, the more you start getting a bit nervous.

“I’m aware that it’s getting closer and closer, but I’m trying not to think about it. I’ve just got to go in, do my job and not worry about the outcome. I’ve raced the race hundreds of times. I’ve been up against the same competitors. It’s just another competition... with a couple more people watching.”

• Hannah Miley is a Scottish Gas ambassador. Scottish Gas is getting the nation to show its support for the British Swimming Teams and is giving away free swims. Simply visit www.britishgas.co.uk/freeswimming