We chatted how Stephen went from swimming lessons as a child to Olympic champion and she tells us all about his truly inspirational journey. From his goggles falling off during a dive to smashing records, there are some amazing tales to tell - and, of course, a shiny silver Olympic medal to make it all worthwhile!
1. Tell us where / how Stephen started swimming
All the boys started out with the Live Active lessons program and learned to swim at Perth Leisure Pool. You had to queue in those days to get a place. Mike was so early at the pool one of the times, that he’d been there for an hour and a half before the next person arrived. She was really startled to find someone else was there before her as she thought no one could possibly be that early!
Stephen had a friend who was swimming with the club, who suggested he try out. So I took Stephen and Scott along to the next Perth City Swim Club try-out session. Neither of them were quite at the ‘club ready’ stage by then, ie ready to progress from the lessons program into a coaching environment, but we gave it a go. They both got feedback about what to concentrate on in their lessons in order to improve, and we came back to another tryout where Stephen was offered a place in the Club. He had just turned 9, and has been with the Club ever since.
2. When did you first realise he had the potential to go further then local level sports?
We never thought about it that way. It wasn't really in the plan. It was just to enjoy what he was doing and become a better swimmer. It’s been the same for all of the boys in each of their activities – the main reason has always been to have fun!
And it's never stopped taking us all by surprise, every step of the way. From the first club champs, Tayside leagues, to district, schools champs, national and international level. Not because there's a reason why it can't happen for anyone who has a goal, just because it has happened for him, and he's ours! We're a pretty boring people, who've led standard lives just trying to do our best for the kids. That's what parents do - try to give their kids the opportunities they need to get involved in the things they’re interested in. Within reason, of course .
When Stephen was in Rio, Mike would turn to me and say 'Our son is in Rio at the Olympics?!?!? How did that happen?' It's been that way all along. We've had this 'why not' philosophy on everything. Give it a go and see what happens. Stephen just kept at it, kept going, and we've followed on.
3. When did Stephen meet his coach Ann that helped him to become an Olympic standard swimmer?
He met Ann when he tried out for the club. She does all the club tryouts, then and to this day. She knows what she is looking for. She gives everyone who comes along, but isn't yet club ready, guidance on what to concentrate on in their lessons to help get them there. And she encourages them all to come back to the next one. There's a difference between coaching and teaching, and coaching is what we do in the club.
4. How old was he when he first competed? How did this build?
Club Champs, when he was 9. I entered him for everything for his age group- that 'why not' thing again. Then he said he didn't want to do the breaststroke. Turns out he was right - it's never been braw despite Ann's best efforts.
First competition outside the club was the following February, a couple of months before his 10th birthday. He was selected for the Club’s Tayside age group leagues team from his club champs results. The first race at the first meet of the series, was the 4x50m medley relay. He was to swim the anchor leg (freestyle). He dived in and his goggles came off. He swam the rest of it blindly, with his eyes squeezed shut, arms whirling like crazy and managed to finish. All the time I was thinking 'Oh, this is horrendous, never again!!'. All he said afterwards was ' I didn't want to let the guys down'. He wasn't put off at all, and just wore his goggles much tighter from then on!
His first distance race he ever swam we were late arriving in Dundee, at the Old Olympia. It was the SASA Midland District Graded Championships. I didn't even know how the notifications worked for competitions, and it turned out the warm up had been brought forward and I hadn’t realised and had the other two boys to sort out too. Ann was at the top of the steps outside Olympia, hopping mad because we were late. Stephen ran down to the changing rooms, went straight onto poolside and into his race- no warm up- and made a huge improvement on his entry time. My name was mud with Ann for sure, but the outcome was good! I made sure I found out all about everything the club did and how it worked from then on
5. How did you fit his competing and training into family life?
I think all parents face this dilemma. At least all our kids were boys and wanted to do similar things. Cubs, football, fencing, rugby. We just tried to give them the opportunity to try out the things they wanted to do. Then stick with it. We had the same problem everyone does - extended family and friends wanting us to join in with other things. We were driven by the kids choices, really. If there was a clash, we let them decide, but we always tried to encourage them to remember what it means to be part of a team and not let the team down.
I remember arranging to go camping with my brother’s family at Loch Lomond for a weekend, then it turned out it clashed with the Tayside leagues and Stephen was asked to swim. We went down during the day, pitched the tent, drove back to Perth, then back to loch Lomond afterwards. The weather was so Scottish (wet, wet, wet!) we ended up sleeping in my brother’s boat as the tent was almost floating itself by the time we arrived back. But it was good fun, and we didn't miss any of it.
6. Tell me about the Commonwealth Games qualifier
Ah, two opportunities. Scottish Champs then British a week after. Both in Glasgow. He was so wrecked by half way through the second one as it was over a prolonged period of competition he had to rely on his times from the first. Luckily, it was enough to get him on the team.
7. And then winning the silver at the Games in Glasgow
Possibility of a medal was always there, if he made the relay cut. Individually, he was a bit further away in the rankings, but Scotland has a strong history in the men’s 4x200 freestyle relay even though we’re a small nation. He banged out a 5 second pb in his 400 freestyle heats on the first day and took everyone by surprise, including himself. He was incredibly focused on getting things off to a good start on Day 1 for the Scottish team; he took it really seriously and it was all he talked about before he left for the holding camp. He had no idea where that 400 heat swim came from and couldn't quite replicate it in the final. But it was a real breakthrough in terms of his ranking, and showed he was on form.
We didn’t have tickets for the session with the 4x200 final. We were in Glasgow but we didn’t know if he was to be in the team. Some friends from the Club were there too and offered us two tickets. We asked if Stephen’s brothers could go along with them as we had an opportunity to be at Scotland House that night and we knew they would be screening the finals live there. As it happened, during the reception, we were offered two tickets for the session. We knew by then he was definitely in, and with great excitement we ran outside and grabbed a taxi which took us out to Tollcross. At the gate we were picked up by one of the transport buggies that were rounding latecomers up and getting them up to the venue. We were on opposite sides of the pool, but we got there in time to see that momentous final. The noise was just incredible with so many Scots cheering on the home team. It was fantastic to be there to watch in person – a moment none of us will ever forget
8. How did affect other areas of his life and the family life - raised profile etc?
People had suddenly heard of him. They wanted to talk to him. He's a man of few words most of the time and he had to find ways of handling that. It also created an expectation among others about who he was. He wasn't sure how to fit in with that as he was just the same guy, but with a medal!
He actually headed off to Berlin to the Europeans just after the Commonwealth Games full of resolve to go faster than he had in Glasgow. They all had a great time over in Germany - young team, many hadn't done quite what they wanted at the Commonwealths and were keen to go one better, or were buoyed up by what they had achieved and wanted to consolidate that. He went in no holds barred, and had a great time. Team spirit was a huge part of it all. He had the opportunity to swim the final leg of the men’s 4x100m medley relay in the heats, and brought home a gold medal for his part in that. A far cry from that first ever team swim in Dundee when his goggles came off!
9. And then from Commonwealth to Olympics - where do we start?!
The Trials are always a very tense time for everyone. It’s what they’ve been working towards in the first part of the season, and, in fact, for the Olympics, it’s what they’ve been working towards for the last 4 years. Longer, if they missed it last time around.
The 2016 Olympic Trials were in Glasgow – back on familiar territory. We stayed in the town centre, thinking we’d be well away from other swimmers, but we weren’t. The 400 freestyle was Day 1, and he took silver, finishing within the margin of time required for possible consideration for the team, but no certainties. The same thing happened in the 1500, with another silver. The 200 free was on the final evening. He stuck to his race plan and came in 2nd in the last few metres, which gave him a real chance of selection for Rio. He had to wait almost a week for the team selections to be announced, but it was looking positive. He was absolutely over the moon when he made the cut. It had been his goal for so many years, and now he was finally getting the chance to be at the Olympics and represent TeamGB.
He had a great time in Rio, at the holding camp and at the Games. He had been to the preparation camp in Belo Horizonte the year before but hadn’t been in the Olympic village or venue as they were still under construction.
He was disappointed in his 400 freestyle heat swim on Day 1, even though it was a new personal best and a Scottish record, as he didn’t make the final. He called that night and we had a long chat about it all, and what was still to come. Just as in Glasgow 2014, he had shown good form in his opening swim and it gave him the chance to be part of the team for the heats of the 4 x 200 free relay. They all knew that the three fastest would have the chance to compete in the final and that World Champion James Guy would join that trio in the evening session.
With the same team that had won silver in Glasgow, they qualified fastest for the final, breaking the Scottish record they had set in 2014. Stephen’s lead off time was another new personal best and good enough to earn him a place in the next round. We knew the US would be very strong, but there was a possibility of a good medal once again. We were just ecstatic for the whole team when they collected the silver. Although he didn’t make it to the final of the 1500, posting a time that was just outside his best in the heats, he was more philosophical about it this time. He said ‘whatever happens from now on I’ll always have that memory of winning silver at the Olympics’.
10. Life after the Olympics - back to Perth, what's his current focus, future plans?
There was a great article in the Bath Chronicle last month, where Siobhan-Marie O’Connor talked about the struggle to motivate herself to get back into training post-Rio and begin the grind of the next 4 years towards Tokyo.
We had also had the privilege at the Europeans in May 2016 to be present at a talk Michael Jamieson gave, wherein he was very frank about the positives and negatives of Olympic success and what came after. We were prepared for the big slump that can arrive and had arranged a short break for us all to celebrate as a family after Rio. Stephen didn’t want to go away as he had been away so much that year he had really missed Scotland, so we went to Arran – Scotland in miniature – and had a great time there together.
When we got back to Perth, there were lots of legacy visits lined up, which gave him the chance to continue to celebrate it all and say thank you for all the support he had received. This was a very important part of what he wanted to do afterwards. He planned a 4 week break in total before going back into training, and he stuck to that. He did a good job of it all, and was really pleased to have the chance to meet so many local people and show them the medal. Knowing that so many people were watching back home and cheering them on was a huge help to all the athletes during the Games.
There was no debate at all about what his future plans were: to get to the next Olympics and win an individual medal. He was so sure this is what he wanted that, after much wrangling, he made the difficult decision to suspend his studies at Perth College, UHI, to concentrate on swimming full time. We’ve always said those all-important life choices had to be his decision, and we are happy to support him in this. Not just Stephen, but Ann too. Their partnership as swimmer and coach has been at the core of their success. What they have achieved together and within the Club has been phenomenal. We will do everything we can to continue to support them both, and Ann’s program, the Club, and all its swimmers into the future.
Find out more about the Perth City Swim Club HERE >>>