9 August 2008

"Take your marks..."

Although I'm distinctly uncomfortable with a country of China's murky reputation hosting the Olympic Games, I'm no political activist and will watch them, as I always do. Swimming is my main sport of choice at the Games as it was my sport of choice as a child and remains a sport in which the rest of my family is heavily involved.

In 1988, Kevin Boyd qualified for the Olympic Games in Seoul. He was a medical student at university in the north east at the time and was therefore labelled by hacks and commentators as "Kevin Boyd, from Tyneside", but was in reality very much still a Hull boy, and kids like me who watched him ploughing up and down the fast lane at Albert Avenue Pool's training sessions throughout the 1980s were really excited that we knew an Olympian personally.

He was a backstroke specialist as he grew up but switched to long-distance freestyle as his international career blossomed, and in Seoul he made the final of the 1500m, which is the swimming equivalent of the marathon. He didn't get a medal, but he came back a hero to his city of birth. He was a guest on my programme a few months ago.

The 1500m is a gruelling event, irrespective of your abilities in competitive swimming. I did numerous 1500m races as a kid - my first one, aged nine, at the City of Hull Swimming Club's internal championships, was in the old 33.3 yard Beverley Road baths and therefore the nearest we could get was a 1766 yards race, which was 53 lengths. It wasn't an age group race - I was the only nine year old even half-capable of doing it without either drowning or still ploughing through the water at midnight - so it was a boys race of all ages. I took to the pool with four other lads and came second to Andrew Pritchard, who was two years older than me (in fact the other swimmers - Graeme Shaw, Simon Henrickson and Andrew Parker, were also two years older). The second heat involved the elder lads. It was a heat declared winner system (so the fastest five didn't then compete in a final - thank God) and although I wasn't placed, I later acquired a City of Hull Super Swimmer T-shirt - a prized garment within the club, seriously - for my achievement in being the youngest ever member to partake in the race. That record will, I'm sure, have been long broken.

Once the new Ennerdale pool (no gags about sheep dip, please) opened in the mid-80s, the club shifted to that as it was a 25m pool and therefore we could measure our times via the nationally-endorsed metric system. The 1500m race - 60 lengths, arithmetic fans - was harder here because the pool temperature was very high and the whole building (a glass construction) was absolutely sweltering. It's a very strange feeling when you feel completely dehydrated while immersed entirely in water.

This race was age-grouped as we had a lot more swimmers capable by now, and as I recall, Mark Billam and I had a right old battle throughout but he beat me in the end over the final 100m and did so comprehensively. I settled for second, which was what was largely expected of me. At the time I was a huge Depeche Mode fan and the Singles 81-85 compilation had just come out - I had saved my pocket money to acquire this vital cassette and had been listening to it on my Walkman on the poolside through the other events. This meant I swam 60 gruelling lengths of a roasting pool with Shake The Disease - and especially Martin Gore's falsetto moans at the beginning - going through my head over and over again.

My last 1500m race was at South Hunsley pool, west of the city. We had converted to yardage again for this, and on this occasion it was a Hull & District Championship race, meaning that the lads round my age from other clubs in the county were taking part. I was 15 and had started to decline as a swimmer, both in interest and ability. This was an odd old race, as I was expected by everyone, including myself, to finish a conclusive last of only four competitors, and Mark Marshall - a good swimmer from Bridlington - was expected to lap me during the 53 lengths.

He certainly was miles ahead of the rest of us, but I kept up with Mark Raper and Bradley Palmer throughout the race and indeed led them for vast chunks of it. I had no sprint after 50 lengths though, and was frustrated as my tiring arms couldn't cope with these two guys' strength in reserve. They eased past me and I duly finished fourth, but a far more respectable fourth than initially anticipated. On reflection, I was to that race exactly what those uncompetitive pacemakers are in athletics races when someone else in the field is after a world record. Still, my mum was proud of me and said so as I got out of the pool - and ran straight across the green faux-carpet poolside at South Hunsley to the changing rooms to be physically sick.

I gave up competitive swimming within the next year. Ale, girls and exams - you know how it is...

David Davies is our great hope in the 1500m in Beijing, just as he was in Athens where he got an excellent bronze. He's also doing the inaugural 10k open water race, which takes endurance swimming to a totally alien level. International swimmers do a 1500m race in about 15 minutes, whereas lads like me in 1982 took twice as long - making it hardly the most enthralling spectacle for those on the poolside and balcony.

I hope David can go one better this time, if not two, of course. Irrespective of your performance level, there's a great feeling attached to winning a 1500m race - I know this as I did win a couple of mine, yet they are the ones I can remember nothing about!

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