The uncharted terrain Kathleen Dawson has explored since taking the plunge into the University of Stirling’s swimming programme last September has not been measured in micro-seconds shaved off her bests. It has been within the pages of recipe books – presumably those that advise students of 100 ways to incorporate a tin of beans and a bottle of soy sauce – where the 19-year-old has delved deepest to make marginal gains. “Towards the end of being at home, I did a few more basics,” she giggles. “But I didn’t do much of it until I came here.”
Then again, life on campus is meant to drag a teen out of their comfort zone and towards whatever passes for maturity. Dawson, born in Kirkcaldy but previously resident in Warrington, returned north primarily to hone her stroke rather than her simmering technique, ready for the graft of dawn raids on the pool as a lengthy and circuitous route towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo began in earnest.
One of many significant staging posts arrives this week with a British Championships in Sheffield that forms the selection trials for July’s world championships in Budapest. Inevitably, post-Rio, familiar faces have taken their leave. Vacancies sit open for new kids off the blocks. “I’m not expecting too much,” she proclaims. “If I just go to have fun, that’s when I usually get the best results.”
She is being unduly modest in the expectations placed. Few would dispute that the Fifer has the calibre to contend after underlining her talent at last year’s European Championships in London. She became the first Scotswoman to dip under the one-minute mark in the 100 metres backstroke en route to claiming bronze before leading the British relay team to 400m medley gold.
It revealed poise but also resilience. Despite those accomplishments, Dawson already knew that the door to the then-forthcoming Olympics had been closed as a consequence of a disappointing performance at the trials in Glasgow. Yet when the Games came, and she was merely watching on TV, it did not feel too bitter a pill.
“I can understand how people would expect me to be disappointed,” she affirmed. “I had my chance to swim the qualifying time. I did it three weeks too late. My trials weren’t great and that did knock me back a bit. I asked myself ‘why are you doing this?’ And the answer was ‘because I enjoy it.’
“So my mindset going into the Europeans was just that. So to come out with the two medals I got made me think this is what I’m here to do: to produce results. I knew I was good enough to go to the Olympics but everything happens for a reason.”
The bus from Stirling to Ponds Forge will be booked to capacity ahead of the start of the domestic battles on Tuesday, with Duncan Scott and Dan Wallace fortified by Olympic silvers and Ross Murdoch among those with points to vigorously prove.
The atmosphere cultivated by the coaching pairing of Ben Higson and Steve Tigg preaches competitiveness but also mutual support. “They’re all so focused on what they want to do and they’re all so determined on getting you where you want to be as well,” Dawson asserts. “It’s good to have an environment where everyone is striving to get to the same level – which is performing well on an international stage.”
There is no hierarchy, no ego, no sense of a clique wary of newcomers, she adds.
“They’re just team-mates. No-one feels any different to anyone else. But it is good to have these people around you because it shows you can get to that level. You had four Olympians at Rio. Two silver medals for Duncan. To see they’ve come through the same programme as me, it suggests it can produce very good results.”
Beyond Budapest, the cycle will turn to another Europeans in Glasgow next summer and, in between, the Commonwealth Games Down Under, each potentially delicious dishes to concoct. “Fifth in the 500 back at Glasgow 2014 was my highest individual finish,” Dawson underlines. “And it makes me think I’ll have the opportunity to medal at the Gold Coast.”