HAVING already claimed gold medals at the World Championships and Paralympic Games, Josef Craig is hoping to complete a clean sweep of major swimming titles when he competes at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games this summer.
The Jarrow-based 17-year-old burst onto the scene when he became Team GB’s youngest gold medallist at the Olympic or Paralympic Games in 2012, an achievement that saw him end the year as the BBC’S Young Sports Personality of the Year.
Last year proved equally as successful, with Craig winning two gold medals and also setting a new world record in the final of the 400m freestyle S7 at the World Championships in Montreal.
The teenager, who has cerebral palsy, is already the most successful North-East disability swimmer in history – but with two major championships looming large in the next four months, he isn’t planning on resting on his laurels.
“It’s another really big year for me,” said Craig. “It’s fantastic to be world and Paralympic champion – but I don’t want to stop there.
“I want to win more medals, and I want to swim even faster so I can get my world record down. Everyone else will be hoping to swim faster this season, so I have to be ready to do the same. Thankfully, my winter training has gone really well and I feel in even better shape than I have before.”
On the evidence of last year’s World Championship final in his preferred event, the 400m freestyle, Craig will have to be at the very top of his form to claim the European title this summer.
In the most thrilling finish imaginable, Craig held off Russian Andrey Gladkov by five hundredths of a second, with both swimmers dipping below the previous world-record mark.
The pair are due to lock horns again in August’s European Championships in Eindhoven, and while Craig is expecting another titanic tussle, the Tynesider is confident of coming out on top.
“I’m looking forward to racing him again,” he said. “I’m sure he’s been working really hard in the run up, but I’ve also been working as hard as I possibly can.
“If he thinks he’s going to finish ahead of me and stop me getting another gold medal, that’s just going to spur me on. He’s going to see a new Josef Craig at the European Championships because I’m a stronger, more experienced swimmer now.
“I was good before, but I’m going to be even better this season. The Europeans are my number one focus this season, and I’m not going to be leaving without a gold medal.”
Triumphing at the Commonwealth Games might be more of a challenge, as the 400m freestyle is not included on the programme of disability events in Glasgow, meaning Craig will have to drop down to either the 50m free or 100m free in order to compete.
In athletics terms, that would be like asking Mo Farah to take on Usain Bolt, but Craig is confident he is adaptable enough to rise to the challenge. He is expected to compete in the shorter events at this month’s British Para-Swimming International in Glasgow, an event that doubles as the trials for both the Commonwealths and Europeans.
“I’m going to the trials for the experience of more competition, so we’ll see how things go,” he said. “From my point of view, it’s obviously a shame that it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a 400m freestyle in the S7 at the Commonwealths.
“It would have been nice to have been able to do my best event in front of a big British crowd again. Hopefully, I can still compete in something though. I’ll be doing the 50m and 100m as well as the 400m at the trials, so we’ll see how the results go.”
After spending more than nine years at South Tyneside Swimming Club, Craig made the difficult decision to switch to Sunderland Swimming Club, based at the Aquatic Centre next to the Stadium of Light, last month.
“It was a massive wrench, but it was something I needed to do,” he said. “I’m training with a much higher level high-performance squad now, and that’s been great in terms of driving me on and improving me.
“I spoke to my old coach, Paul Robinson, at length about it, and he was great with me. I told him how I was feeling a few months in advance, and we tried our best to work around it. He did the utmost he could to achieve a turnaround, but it wasn’t possible to achieve that.
“I’ve got a new coach, Danny Thompson, now and things have gone really well. I’m part of an elite group now, and everybody is working for the same thing. We’re all working towards achieving a high performance level together.
“I think it’s really helping me to be ready to perform at the highest level. Every single session is an important one, and that’s the way you should train.”
* Josef Craig is part of the British Gas GBR Para-Swimming team. He is supporting British Gas SwimBritain this summer, a campaign to create a healthier nation and get more people swimming more regularly. To find out more about venues and register your interest, go to swimbritain.co.uk