WHEN Aimee Willmott competed at London 2012, she was delighted just to be lining up against the best swimmers in the world. Two years on, and the Teesside 21-year-old is ready to start beating them.
Eleventh in the 400m Individual Medley at the Olympics and ninth in last year's World Championships, missing out on a place in the final by a couple of hundredths of a second, Willmott has been steadily improving throughout her senior career.
This winter marked a more pronounced step forward, as she set new 400 IM national records over both long course and short course, and claimed a bronze medal at the European Short-Course Championships in Denmark.
Tomorrow, she will compete on the opening day of the British Gas Swimming Championships in Glasgow, an event that doubles as the trials for the England team at this summer's Commonwealth Games.
In the past, victory at the trials would have been a cause for celebration. Now, it would be regarded more as a means to an end.
“I feel as though I'm going into a really important period for me,” said Willmott, who is coached by Lisa Bates at Middlesbrough Swimming Club. “When I competed in last year's World Championships, that meant I'd completed the set of swimming in Worlds, Olympics, Europeans and Commonwealths.
“I've had the novelty of being there – now I want to be challenging for titles and winning medals. I'm 21 now, so the next three years leading up to Rio should be some of the best of my career.
“I feel like I'm really good shape and I've taken a decent chunk out of my times over the winter. Hopefully, that all point towards a successful summer.
“The Commonwealths are the main aim, and I want to go there and really achieve something. But you can't get too far ahead of yourself and I have to put in the performances to make the team first. That's what this week is all about.”
The final of the 400IM, her preferred event, will take place on the opening night of competition as Glasgow stages the Commonwealth Games, a piece of scheduling that appears to have been designed to give Scottish swimmer Hannah Miley, the British number one, a chance of getting the home nation's aquatics campaign off to a flying start.
Willmott, who also hopes to compete in the 200IM, 200m freestyle and 200m butterfly in Glasgow, will be charged with the task of spoiling the party, and while the pair were some way apart a couple of seasons ago, the gap has narrowed significantly recently, to the extent where it no longer really exists at all.
Willmott finished more than three seconds ahead of Miley as she claimed a bronze medal at the European Short-Course Championships, and this week's British Championships provide an opportunity for both swimmers to lay down another early marker ahead of the Commonwealths.
“There was a time where I probably wondered if it was ever realistic to think I could regularly beat Hannah, but that's not the case now,” said Willmott, who continues to combine her swimming career with part-time study for a sports science degree at Teesside University. “It's a positive competition between us and I think we're pretty closely matched.
“I swam on the first day of the Olympics, and that was an amazing thing to experience, and I expect the first night at the Commonwealth Games up in Glasgow to be something similar.
“The fact Hannah is one of Scotland's best medal hopes will give everything a bit of an extra edge, and hopefully I'll thrive off that excitement as well.”
Having smashed her 400IM long-course record and chipped more than two-and-a-half seconds off her best 200IM mark at December's Flanders Cup, Willmott proved the results were no fluke when she set a new English 400IM short-course record of 4:25:37 at the Europeans eight days later.
The two people to beat her – Spain's Mireia Belmonte Garcia and Hungary's Katinka Hosszu – are regarded as two of the greatest medley swimmers of all time, so Willmott's performance confirmed her ability to compete for medals at the very highest level.
“I thought I'd do well, but if I'm honest, I probably didn't think I'd swim quite as fast as I did,” she said. “That was a slight surprise, but it just confirmed that all the work we've been doing over the winter, and some of the little changes to the training programme we've made, have worked.
“I've been concentrating on my technique a lot, and it seems to have produced the right results. The biggest positive wasn't just breaking the records, it was the fact I was knocking quite big chunks off my times.
“If you're chipping away a tenth of a second here and a tenth of a second there, it's hard to really get anywhere because everyone else is doing the same. But if you can take a second or two out of your time in one swoop, that's when you can start putting yourself in contention.
“This winter has proved I can swim world-class times and contend for medals. It was great to win my first major medal in my main event, and that was something I'd wanted to do for a while. But it would be even better to get on the podium at a Commonwealth Games.”