Scott McLay rather enjoyed being the anchorman when the British swim team assembled in Gwangju last summer. No Ron Burgundy-esque figure of fun, he nearly became a headline act when his mixed relay squad bolted to within millimetres of a surprise world championship medal.
Being placed in a position of ultimate responsibility provided a valuable vote of confidence. “Because it was pretty frickin’ overwhelming when I got on the team,” said the 20-year-old. Thriving on a grand stage has accelerated his sense of comfort. Enough so that when the European short-course championships begin in Glasgow today, he intends to write himself into the forefront.
It has helped, rather than hindered, his readiness to have been tabbed as a prodigy, right from when he began to make waves at his local Perth City club. It spurred a call-up for last year’s Commonwealth Games amid a transfer to the talented aquatic achievers at Stirling University. It has allowed him to embrace signals from British Swimming that, bar calamity, he will be bound for Tokyo next summer and an Olympic debut.
“I quite like the pressure,” said McLay, who will open up at Tollcross in the 100 metres butterfly. “I quite like feeling that nervousness. I feel as if it gets me to that other level that sometimes I struggle to find. And when I’ve got that pressure in a relay when you just want to do the best for the team, it kind of comes from when you first begin to swim.
“You go through the levels: your club championships into districts and then into small competitions within Scotland. It’s just step by step. You learn to deal with it. It isn’t like all of a sudden, you go from just learning to swimming at worlds. You just make sure you focus on the performance.”
Down for four individual events, plus relays on top, the five days in Glasgow offer McLay – and his colleagues – an ideal benchmark on the road to Japan. Short course, over 25 metres rather than the full pool, demands different traits but still fully tests competitive nerve. Although Adam Peaty, the UK’s lone champion in Copenhagen two years ago, has opted out, the cast list is otherwise stellar.
“The short course is always very, very quick,” McLay said. “But there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be up there in the rankings and competing with these bigger boys.”
Once the week is over, and after a brief respite, with his studies on hold for this year, the kid with life goals of becoming a pilot will take to the skies once more, to altitude camps that can hone him for April’s Olympic trials.
He is acutely aware that gold medals have been acquired by competitors aged 20 years and below. No rush, he feels. “This is kind of my first look on it,” he said. “But if I make the team and I’m on that, it’s the Olympics, the very best in the world, the creme de la creme of competitions.” In other words, Paris 2024 is an enticing Plan B.
But his crew in Stirling will drive him on. Duncan Scott has paved a pathway towards Olympic medals. Ross Murdoch, who swims the 50m breaststroke this morning, remains relentless in his ambition.
“We bounce energy off each other because everyone wants to do the best they possibly can,” McLay said. “That’s what I strive for, keeping that fire alive and making sure we’re all there for each other. From that we’re able to create our best.”