Back in his youth, when Glasgow coach Stephen Hill asked one of his young charges what he wanted from the sport, Michael Jamieson wrote down "2:08"; two Olympic cycles later, he took silver in the 200m breaststroke in 2:07.43 at a home Games
Michael Jamieson (Bath University and GBR) passed his first test of racing straight off the back of an altitude camp with aplomb: 2:10.43 over 200m breaststroke at the British Gas International in Leeds last weekend fell a touch shy of his aim of a sub-2:10 effort but ticked the boxes marked "win" and "provide confidence for world titles campaign".
The 25-year-old from Glasgow looked the part: smooth, flowing, long and streamlined in stroke. He emerged from the race to talk about the need to clock 2:10 with relative ease on a more regular basis. Away from big championship waters, international and domestic, he had only racked inside 2:11 once before, in the December before his breakthrough Olympic season. Often, he settled between 2:12.5 and 2:14 in most of his mid-season swims. His latest effort was the 7th best of his career, while his top 50 swims range from 2:07.43, for silver at London 2012, and 2:17.51.
Consistency and easy speed during qualification are high on the list of things Jamieson would like to take more charge of on his way to seeking medals at every major occasion all the way to a return to the podium at Rio 2016. After the race in Leeds, where he set the pace from start to finish, Jamieson noted: "I paid for it [early speed, 29.2 at the 50m] towards the end I think but at this stage of training that is what it's all about.
"I'm just trying to test myself. That front-end speed is exactly what I'm trying to improve on in the next couple of years and in order to do that I am going to have to keep forcing myself to be uncomfortable on the first 100. I love racing in finals and trying to swim fast drives me; I think the fact that I really enjoy it helps me to get up for the evening swims and post good times when it matters.”
In our first look at Jamieson and his next chapter, post-London 2012 with a new status in tow, we end with this from the swimmer: “If I’d finished fourth in London, I would have said that it was not worth it," he says. “I’m absolutely delighted with the journey I took, with the way it turned out. Always wanting more, having an attitude that I always wanted to be better and worked for that from my youth, served me well."
The question had been about comfort vs the opposite, about roots and the ride. Choice in sport was more significant that geography, although Glasgow, a place long on the up, is hardly synonymous with cotton wool unless you count the number of head butts and bandages downtown when Saturday night's alright for fighting (it is the only city I’ve been to where you can walk into a restaurant at 8.30-9pm believing you’re in a calm and civilised place but walk out at 11 to scenes of carnage and mayhem thinking you’ve had a trip on the Tardis).
“I didn't really enjoy swimming when I first got into it,” Jamieson recalls, laughter in his tone as he explains why he hardly got in the water during his first block of six swim lessons: “The water was too cold for me.”
A talent on the pitch in his youth, Jamieson might have followed in his father Michael, a football player for Hearts, Alloa and Stenhousemuir in his day. But the cold of pool water won the war with the cold of dashing about in shorts in the midst of a Scottish winter for the 12-year-old.
Jamieson lived in the shadow of his second love, Celtic Park, the home of Celtic Football Club not far from the Toll Cross pool in east Glasgow where he trained as a boy and will race for Commonwealth gold at a home Games next year. “I can remember my little sister Lauren being bundled into the back of the car at 4.30am because dad had to get me to training at a time when mum [Jackie] was working down south,” says Jamieson. His 20-year-old sibling “survived”, he says through laughter, and is thriving as a dancer at the Urdang Academy for performing arts in London.
In Glasgow, Jamieson attended the Bellahouston Academy Sports School and dropped football altogether the year before High School. Swimming would be his focus from 12 onwards. “I had the idea of being a pro’ athlete back then: I had an active family and the idea stemmed from the support for what I wad doing from my family. I always knew I would be a player in sport.
Looking back to those early years, could Jamieson recall when he had become conscious of something called the Olympic Games and when he had linked himself to that consciousness, desire and and prospect on the cusp of leaving their blocks?
"I remember watching the Sydney 2000 Games, with [Domenico] Fioravanti [ITA] and others. Terence Parkin [RSA] was there: one of my old coaches used to coach him. At the time, I was really loving my swimming: at 11, 12, 13, I was improving all the time. Down the line to Athens 2004, I remember thinking 'This is what I want to do as a career. I want to be on that stage'."
He moved from his local club to Aussie coach Stephen Hill at the City of Glasgow. At the time, Hill was mentor to Rebecca Cooke, the triple Commonwealth freestyle champion. If Hill was perceived as a hard task master, Cooke was the cheerleader for work ethic, the girl-to-woman responsible for reminding British distance freestylers that they could be world class once more, generations after the prime years of Sarah Hardcastle, and Olympic medallist in 1984 and back on a big podium at world s/c championships at Rio in the midst of a comeback in 1995.
Jamieson recalls: "It was obvious that hard work was going to be part of the programme. Steve asked me what I wanted from the sport. I had a decent degree of clarity, looking at stats of the past few years. I wrote down 2:08 would get a medal. That's what I wanted. I wrote than down in 2004. I always had that in mind." He took silver in the 200m at London 2012 in 2:07.43, just shy of Hungarian Daniel Gyurta, on a world record of 2:07.28.
Alongside that "2:08" back in 2004, Jamieson scribbled "three pages of weaknesses that needed improving on". Hill put him to work: big yards, little let up, the mechanics of endurance forged. Technique might have been overlooked in such a regime had it not been for his school coach Bill Penny, who was on the poolside in Kent in southern England when this author was a swimmer at primary school there in the late 60s.
“Bill was huge on technique,” says Jamieson. “I did all my conditioning with Steve, my technical work with Bill. They were very different, had different approaches. They had a couple of run-ins now and again but overall it worked perfectly for me: their work was complementary.”
Even so, he was unhappy with his lack of progress on the plateau between boy and man. Among his best 56 times are 16 efforts inside 2:12; and 37 inside 2:15.11, the pioneering blockbuster of fellow Scot David Wilkie, the only non-American man to win gold in the pool at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. Jamieson, born more than a decade after Wilkie's storming victory, broke 2:15.11 for the first time in 2008, but his 2:14.85 did not register with him as a barrier felled.
"I've always been guilty of looking at the bigger picture and wanting too much too quickly," says Jamieson. "I always had some sort of grievance with my performance until the past two years. It took me a long time to realise how long the journey would take for me to get down to what I wanted and make the improvements that I needed; slowly, bit by bit. I was stuck on 2:19 for 2 to 3 years and was thinking of packing it all in. Then at the Olympic trials in 2008, I went down to 2:14 and 2:13. I got the bit between my teeth again. I knew the direction I wanted to go in, knew not to let it go."
After the 2008 trials, he moved to Edinburgh and coach Fred Vergnoux. “In Edinburgh, it was the first time that I had the belief that I could could actually reach my goals. Kris Gilchrist was there. He was on 2:10 at that stage ... I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to catch him. I started swimming better and better but I was thinking that I wasn't going to catch Kris without putting some weight and size on. I was only 75kg: he was 10kg heavier than me. Fred’s programme was incredible, high volume, intensive in gym and water. I just couldn’t pack the weight on because of the workload and being too tired from the pool to put the right strength work in.”
He had long had a tricky relationship with his metabolism. “I’m a bit strange,” he explained with a chuckle. “I can't keep up with my metabolism. I find it hard to put weight on even when the volume is low. They put me on a nutrition plan of 6,500 calories a day for four to 6 weeks. It didn’t work. We often take skin-fold and body composition measurements and I get a lot of stick from the guys in the squad because I struggle to get to race weight. My body composition barely changes at all through the season. When I have a break, the muscle just falls off In lost a stone (about 7kg) in the month after London .”
The bright side: “I've got a bit of room for things that others can have: I can afford a few treats.”
In 2009, Jamieson got a touch faster but was still frustrated: he was not where he wanted to be at a time when breaststroke times were shooting off the chart courtesy of booster bodysuits banned since January 2010.
He recalls: “I kind of knew from my mid-teens I was going to be a bit of a late developer. I did a 2:19 before my 16th birthday and was only half a second faster at 19 when I moved from Steve to Fred. For a while after that I was in a constant state of adaptation at a time when I was taking on new land-based stuff. I think that it was partly down to over-training when I was younger: the kind of mileage I was doing didn’t go with the body I had. The first couple of years with Fred was about trying to convince myself to keep doing what I was doing, to stick with it.”
The move to Edinburgh helped Jamieson raise his bar. Glasgow was largely Becky [Cooke] and an age-group programme, while in Edinburgh Jamieson got his first glimpse of the daily dedication of a whole senior-squad. “There was Kirsty Balfour, Kris Gilchrist and others. I was younger than them and out of my depth for the first six months, when Fred wouldn’t allow me to swim breaststroke because I was too slow to keep up.
“I didn’t have the power. I’d done land conditioning before but with Fred, it was the first time I was was doing Olympic lifting exercises. It took me by surprise. I put a lot of weight on and I started to realise what it was like, what you had to do, to be a senior pro’ athlete.” He followed Vergnoux and Gilchrist to Paris when the French coach returned home. Life was lean, money tight. Jamieson was hungry. A silver over 200m at Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games for Scotland was among the rewards that kept him on track.
On the way to London 2012, as Vergnoux moved to Barcelona and a new journey with Mireia Belmonte and Co, Jamieson got the chance to move to Bath when the Intensive Training Centre was set up there and the head coach role went to Dave McNulty, mentor to Jo Jackson, Olympic bronze medallist over 400m free, world 400m s/c record holder and podium placer at the 2009 world titles.
Gilchrist went with him and another breaststroke promise, Andrew Willis, coached by Rosa Gallop at Bracknell, joined them. Training was bound to be a daily challenge on a new level from day 1. Come Olympic trials, one teammate had to fall: Gilchrist took the knock, his farewell nod to the teammates he had helped make the team on their way to the Olympic 200m final in London a model of gracious, sportsmanlike conduct.
At trials, Willis and Jamieson cracked 2:10, Willis on 2:09.33, for the first time. Both would crack 2:09 at the Games, while Jamieson would find the X-factor for a 2:07.43 blast on to the podium. The drop was no shock to the most successful British swimmer at the Games.
“When I swam in March, a 2:09.84, that was not the time I was capable of,” says Jamieson. “I’d come back from Australia three weeks before trials and the timing of things wasn’t enough rest for me. I was in and out of adaptation. At such times, it’s psychological. You have to turn things around and I was happy to be able to make the team because I’d had so much self-doubt the week before the trials and was panicking the whole way through trials.
“I just lost out on the 100 to Craig Benson. In the two days before the 200 I was a nervous wreck,” he added. “I thought ‘It’s all going to end here’ I should have gone 2:08 but I guess a 2:09, looking back, was a blessing in disguise. I went in [to the Games] under radar, a bit of a dark horse. I knew the trials were a blip not a best.” And so it proved.
He emerged from London soaked in the kind of calm confidence that only success can bring. “The swimming journey is long and so many weeks months years of training go into it. It’s hard slog,” says Jamieson adding up the years of 80 to 100km a week before the drop off to 55-65 a week. “Everyone enjoys swimming fast and so the last two to three seasons were so much more enjoyable than what went before. When you’re younger you put in the real yardage ... it’s character building even if it’s not the type of work that will necessarily make you a great athlete.”
Don’t imagine a soft option: a couple of “pretty intense” circuits sessions, three lifting sessions, stretch sessions, are all in the mix alongside the 10 sessions in water. His energy system is tested in specific sets, such as: 5x300m freestyle, going on heart-rate and lactate; and, in the quality phase, a Bowman-Phelps set of 4x8x50 descending, 2 easy, 2 race pace, the last block all race pace, off heart rate.
It’s more smart than slog these days, says Jamieson. “I’m really, really enjoying my swimming right now,” he notes with an eye on a target of making the podium at every major international all the way to and including Rio 2016. “I’m loving the training that goes with it, the feeling of lactate that goes with it; the lifestyle of training and everything. I love the journey as much as the result. I’m able to train a bit smarter now. The character is there. I’m working on small areas of improvements and small subtle changes that can make the difference.”
Such as? “I’m always working on technique, a lot of technical aspects,” he replies. “The range of movement in my back and flexibility is something I’ve been working on and there’s still room for improvement: it affects my line and position in water, my kick and starts. I’ll be working on it for the rest of my career.”
McNulty and the Bath sports science team will make sure of it. Jamieson likes the evidence-based programme, each session flushed “with a reason for doing what we’re doing”. Like many, he works in cycles, on the flow through aerobic, high volume, intensity, quality, race pace.
It works on a personal level with McNulty, too. Says Jamieson: “He’s an approachable guy and one thing he is great at is knowing where the line is; when to be relaxed and calm and when to come down on us. He has our respect.” The coach plays house music over the speakers during sessions sometimes, too: it goes down well with the class of 2013.
Jamieson, who signed a deal with Speedo this past week, will graduate in Sports Performance this summer. He make take up music lessons, DJ-ing and even some work down at the golf course to fill the gap left between training sessions.
On the Britain team, he and McNulty are among those in an odd place: their success stands in stark contrast to all the talk of missed targets, disappointment, review and inquiry that followed London 2012 and has dominated discussion.
Swimming is a “unique” sport, Jamieson says: ”We train and work together on a daily basis but on the blocks it is down to just you. The Games could hardly have gone any better for me but I’m still part of the team and I still feel a bit of disappointment for my teammates who didn't get the results they wanted.”
Time to move on. On the way to trials June and the Barcelona world titles, he may take in a leg of the Mare Nostrum tour. Wherever he goes, his new status will go with him. Pressure? “No, I don't think so,” he says. “I think I put more pressure on myself than anyone else will do. The pressure is never going to affect me; I'm my own harshest critic. What it [London silver] has changed is that I’m more confident now and can took at the title instead of the minor medals.”
One gold he will not want to miss is the Commonwealth crown next year. “Glasgow is home for me. It’s where I grew up in swimming. To race at the Games just a few miles from where we lived is going to be very special.” There will be an independence election in Scotland that summer. Jamieson’s vote is a matter for Jamieson. In sport, Jamieson’s stance is clear, his only borders where his heart is: “I’m proud to wear the flag, Scotland and Britain.”
Michael Jamieson is a British Gas ambassador and is supporting SwimBritain, a campaign to get more people swimming regularly by 2015. Visit the SwimBritain Facebook page for more details. “I’m delighted to be a part of this campaign. It relates back to how many we get involved in the sport. Hopefully, London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 can help that,” says Jamieson.
You can hear more on what he and other swimmers said at the British Gas International by watching these video clips.