The parade that awaited Hannah Miley when she returned from last year’s Commonwealth Games was flooded with pummelling rain. A silver medal, another trinket to add to a haul of more than 20 from major events, was hard won under the open skies of Gold Coast. Still a worthy accomplishment, a feat to stand and applaud.
Yet it felt hollow, the achievement extracting muted relief rather than exhilaration or even marginal satisfaction. Two years earlier, the Scot had been asked to cope with the ultimate sensory ambiguity: the cruel nadir of finishing fourth in an Olympic Games. The internal bruising, unseen and undetectable, still lingered in Australia.
“I feel I sort of hadn’t dealt with Rio properly even by then,” she reveals. Sport moves quickly onward. To remain marooned is to regress. Mired deeply, she was floundering until rescue came.
Eighteen months on, that painful juncture feels pivotal, Miley acknowledges, as she prepares to chase down what would be the remarkable feat of competing at an Olympics for the fourth time, in Tokyo. Recently turning 30, it would be an extension beyond the normal life cycle of a swimmer. But she has a renewed motivation to bend the rules, with mind repaired and body invigorated.
Healing, foremost, took time and space. At the subsequent European Championships in Glasgow, when she superbly claimed bronze, the highs barely lifted her off the ground.
“I felt I shouldn’t be feeling relief,” she recalls. “I should be feeling happiness, excitement, being grateful that I was on the podium. Or feeling something better than ‘it feels like a weight off my shoulders’.
“And then I had to have ankle surgery. I went into a panic because I didn’t know what that meant for the rest of my future in swimming. And I just felt a loss with everything. That was what took me over the edge. Because I just felt lost. I felt incredibly lost because I didn’t feel like the athlete that I was at Glasgow 2014 or even Rio 2016. I really didn’t feel like that athlete anymore. So that’s when I knew something was wrong.”
The break that followed her operation, she admits, was more restorative than the procedure itself. More than a decade of unrelenting devotion to scraping milliseconds off her medley and freestyle times had forced her shoulders to cave. Mental health issues were once taboo within her realm. That others have talked openly of the strains has made it easier for those following similarly treacherous paths.
“A big thing is knowing that you’re not on your own with it,” Miley affirms. “And that it is okay to be able to speak about it and to feel confident and not afraid of being judged. Because as an athlete, you’re expected to be perfect… No-one really gets to see you on the bad days. You don’t want people to see you.”
Tellingly, on Instagram last weekend, she posted an unburnished photo, of how chemically-treated water irritates the skin. Sport is brutal, she says, superficially and below the surface. Her rebuttal is to breathe and exhale. Making Tokyo is a burning ambition. Staying home will not burn her out.
But, can she raise herself once more come the trials in April? “I genuinely don’t know,” she says with a surprising smile. “Not knowing used to freak me out. But actually, it makes me feel so much more relaxed because it takes the extra pressure and stress off.”
She will be a mere ambassador when the European short-course swimming championships are staged at Glasgow’s Tollcross Pool from 4-8 December but the showpiece offers Scott McLay an ideal chance to signal his intent ahead of Tokyo. The Scot, 20, had a relay outing at this summer’s world championships in Gwangju. He feels equipped for more.
“I went there with open arms and an open heart, just taking what I could from more experienced guys and learn from it,” he said. “And now I have to put that information into the next step of my career. But knowing that we have a really strong team that could have got on the podium, but then being put on the last leg in the heat, that was a huge confidence boost.”