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Willmott happy to make sacrifices in order to succeed
IF you're going to succeed in elite-level sport, you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.
Maybe it's something simple like the dessert you skip to ensure you stick to your dietary regime. On a grander scale, it could be the thousands of pounds you're still paying back to your parents because you borrowed it to fund your training and equipment at the start of your career. Either way, you miss out on something in order to pursue your dream.
Last October, as she was starting a sports coaching degree at Teesside University, Aimee Willmott spurned freshers' week in order to stick to her training programme of four 5am starts a week.
This morning, as she competes in the British Gas International Meet in Leeds and embarks on a new four-year cycle ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the Middlesbrough-born swimmer will hope her dedication reaps rewards. And as anyone who has attended university will know, missing out on freshers' week is about as dedicated as it comes.
“It was probably one of the few times when I thought, 'Do you know what, I'd really like to go out tonight,'” said Willmott, who finished 11th in the 400m individual medley at last summer's Olympics in London. “It was the only real chance to get know the people on my course and it would have been good to have been part of that, but because of my training, it was never really an option.
“I went to a couple of the events that were on during the day, but most of freshers' week revolves around going out drinking and I had to say no.
“Luckily, as time has gone on, I've made friends on my course and they're really understanding about what I do. They always invite me out on things, even though they know I'll probably say no. And they never make a comment when I'm dashing into a lecture in jeans and a hoodie because I've just ran across from the gym, and they're all dressed up really nice ready to go out. They must be thinking, 'Look at the state of her!'”
She might only have turned 20 last month, but Willmott has already become adept at juggling the demands of her professional and personal life given that she competed in her first major international competition, the European Youth Olympic Festival, when she was just 14.
Last year was the most successful of her career so far as she impressed at the British trials, performed creditably at the Olympics as she narrowly missed out on a final place on the opening morning of competition, and rounded off 2012 by winning a bronze medal in the 800m freestyle at the European Short Course Championships.
This week's event is the first opportunity for the British selectors to assess the state of their squad ahead of a long-course season that will build towards the World Championships in Barcelona at the end of July.
That will be an important staging post in Willmott's development, but the two key events already looming on the horizon are next year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“I feel like last year went pretty well for me, but I'm still at the start of my career and at the moment I've done nothing,” said the Teessider. “I'll be 23 at the next Olympics, and that should be when I'm just hitting my peak.
“If I push things out, I might make the Commonwealths after that (in 2018), so that means I'm looking at three major competitions where I can realistically hope to be competitive. There'll be lots of important things along the way, but they'll be the three meets I'll hopefully look back on when I finish.
“I'm hoping to improve quite a lot this year. If I could make a final at the worlds, that would really set me up for the next three years leading in to Rio.
“I was the third-ranked Commonwealth swimmer at the Olympics, so if I could improve on that slightly, it would give me a great chance of getting my first major medal in Glasgow. That has to be a really big aim.”
To do that though, Willmott will have to buck the recent trend of British underachievement in the pool. While most of Team GB celebrated success after success last summer, the swimming squad came under fire for their failure to live up to their billing in the Aquatic Centre.
Rebecca Adlington described the state of British swimming as an “absolute mess” in December, and the Olympic disappointment resulted in the departure of head coach Dennis Pursley and performance director Michael Scott.
Willmott's judgement is much more reserved, but the North-Easterner admits there were failings in the build-up to London 2012 that will have to be addressed in the future.
“In my opinion, there was too big a gap between the trials and the Games,” she said. “Swimmers were having to peak in the spring, then go away and maintain their form through to the end of July, which is very difficult.
“I also think we suffered from being the first people competing for medals. There was such a massive amount of excitement and that translated to people saying the swimmers had to win a load of gold medals to get the ball rolling.
“When that didn't happen, maybe some people panicked a bit and the pressure got even greater. As a team, we'll have to deal with that better in future.”
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