On the road to the Olympic Games, the wider world gets a bigger-than-usual snapshot of the lives of those in the hunt for medals after years of conditioning and hard work. The thrill, the live-for-the-hour outlook that helps children to ascend any number of learning curves at once can be dulled in the routine of it all. Lucky the man who can keep the spark alive.
In an interview with Britain's Liam Tancock, the world 50m backstroke champion coached by Ben Titley at Loughborough reveals the nature of a child destined for speed in the race pool, the sibling rivalry that drove him on and why being neat with his kit behind the blocks helps keep him in the zone.
This summer, the 27-year-old is on a mission to marry the two best splits he has ever achieved in 100m races for a time inside what it took to win the world title last year - it will take that (balance and send-lap speed critical in the mix for a man who can get to the first wall faster than anyone else) to win a medal at a home Games about 9 weeks from now.
Come the day, Tancock will enter his own little world of obsession. While others throw their kit and shoes in a pile, the former youth rugby player for Exeter Chiefs will fold his clothes neatly and place his headphones on top. He studied the art of pre-race cool by attending other big sports events.
"I fold up my kit and everyone finds that quite funny," Tancock says. "I like to go to Wimbledon to see how tennis players do it, I like to go to the Formula One and see what those guys do ... and whether I can take any of that on. Doing my own thing helps me to stay relaxed and totally focused."
It has been that way since he was a small boy who chased his older brother, Ryan, to the pool with such competitive verve that coaches let him attend early-morning training two years earlier than most. It stopped him from nagging his mother, Kim, a teaching assistant, and his father, Tony, a commercial director at a building firm. They even took him to Wales on holiday so that he could race before he was 10, something frowned on in England at the time.
"My brother used to swim [at national youth team level] and I was like, 'I want to race, too.' It used to kill me," says Tancock. "I used to look up to Ryan. Some of the best times I did when I was growing up was in races he was in and vice versa. He didn't want to get beaten by me and I was dying to beat him, that was pretty cool."
To speak to Tancock is to know he tells a blindingly obvious truth when he admits to never doing anything half-heartedly - though the prize was only ever a small part of the point, regardless of the nature of pursuit. "I'd put everything into crab fishing. I was never really 'I've done this, you've done that', I was never that sort of kid. I enjoyed the process more than the outcome.”
He adds: "Growing up I guess you can apply it to anything. It was great to catch a crab, yes, but I would be out there for hours on the rock pools, absolutely loving it, down the beach with family and friends whatever. I'd love it and be out there for hours and hours and not even realise what the time is. All of a sudden three hours had gone and I'd missed my lunch and it would be time to go home."
Tancock, who hails from Exeter in Devon, a most beautiful corner of England, extends the thought wherever the questions take him: "If I put something into anything I'm all in. It was the same for anything I did - whether it is swimming, rugby, school. I loved school, I thought it was brilliant, I really enjoyed it. I loved everything about it. I used to love going early morning training," added a swimmer in love with life itself.
"I asked my coach if I could go [to morning practice]. I was too young at the time. My brother Ryan was a couple of years older than me and he used to go … I kept pleading until they let me in. And I absolutely loved it, I went morning training, came back and I used to like going into school and everybody has just woken up and I'd been up for three hours and been up for a swim. It was a talking point, everyone loved it … break time would come and I'd already eaten my sandwiches because [to me] it was lunchtime."
A man who tweets ‘morning’ to the world just for the sheer joy of being able to do so, Tancock brims with childlike enthusiasm for his sport and every other one. In Florida on a recent training camp, he trained at midnight for the first time in his life after an electrical storm put the outdoor pool out of bounds and Titley, in true mad-dogs-and-Englishman style, told his team to weather it all and swim out in the midnight hour when the dark clouds had passed over.
"We went back to the pool, got the security guard to open it up, on went the floodlights," Tancock recalls in an Olympics diary he pens for a paper back home. "It was pretty cool diving in with the pool pitch black."
The lights will be on again in on the Mare Nostrum tour in Canet, France, and Monte Carlo this week. A Formula 1 fan, Tancock missed the grand prix by a couple of weeks but intends to wander down to harbour, check out the rock pools and go in for a touch of tyre-track spotting.
In a crowd a gentle giant of a chap, in a backstroke line-up of human skyscrapers often among the shortest, Tancock appears to have no care in the world. He looks over his shoulder only when asked to do so. His world title win last year prompted this: “That was amazing - what’s next?”
Reflection? “I’ve got plenty of time in my life after swimming when I am a grandad to think 'I did pretty well in swimming'.” A wedding may come sooner though long-time girlfriend and London 2012 teammate Caitlin McClatchey may have to wait a while.
“I've never really thought about it honestly, purely because we are so focused on what we are doing in the pool,” he says, adding in laddish lilt: “That’s something you do when you grow up, isn't it? I'm still a spring chicken.” London looms but Tancock has already placed Rio 2016 on his aquatic map.
A version of this article appears in The Times, London, today, alongside a shot of Tancock blasting off the wall a graphic that measures the struggle of splits that can mean the difference between gold and 6th in a big final. (The Times is a subscription-only service, for the paper and all other platforms, hence no link possible).