WITH the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow now less than a month away, swimming star Aimee Willmott could hardly have picked a better time to be in the best form of her life.
Having narrowly missed out on a place in the 400m Individual Medley final at both the Olympic Games and World Championships, Middlesbrough-based Willmott is targeting this summer’s Games as the ideal opportunity to challenge for her first major long-course medal.
The 21-year-old, who is also a student at Teesside University, will compete in four different events in Glasgow – the 400IM, 200IM, 200m butterfly and 400m freestyle – and underlined her ability with a string of impressive displays at the recent Mare Nostrum series in France and Spain.
She picked up a gold and silver medal in her preferred event, the 400IM, setting her up perfectly for the opening day of competition at the Commonwealths, which could see her going head-to-head with Scottish favourite Hannah Miley in one of the first finals of the Games.
The swimming schedule means Willmott will be charged with the task of helping to get Team England off to a flying start, a challenge she is relishing as the Commonwealth opening ceremony draws near.
“It’s getting quite close now and that’s really exciting,” said the Teessider, who trains under the watchful eye of coach Lisa Bates at Middlesbrough ASC. “I’ve got another two or three weeks of hard training to put in, and then it’ll be a case of tapering down for the start of competition.
“It’s been a good season so far, and I’m happy with my form going into the Commonwealths, but everything’s been tailored towards having a successful Games so the real business of the year starts here.
“It was nice to swim well over in France and Spain, and the fields were pretty strong because a lot of international swimmers were competing. As well as most of the European countries, the Japanese sent a really strong squad as well, so it was a pretty high standard of racing.
“I was quicker in both of the medley events than I was at the trials, and that showed that I’m where I need to be. It shows that the training is working, so hopefully this last little block of work will help me go even quicker in Glasgow.”
As the only North-East swimmer in the English squad – Hartlepool’s Jemma Lowe, who is now based in Swansea, will be competing for Wales – Willmott will be trying to extend the region’s proud run of success at the Commonwealths.
Newcastle’s Chris Cook was a double gold medallist in the 50m and 100m breaststroke in the 2006 Games in Melbourne, with Richmond’s Joanne Jackson winning a silver medal in the 400m freestyle at the same event.
Going back a little further, Newcastle’s Sue Rolph claimed two freestyle gold medals in the 1998 Commonwealths in Kuala Lumpur, and Willmott is hoping to follow in their footsteps next month.
“I’ve competed in all the major championships now,” she said. “So I feel like this next cycle of events is when I need to be kicking on and challenging for medals.
“The swimming programme at the Commonwealths is always really strong because as well as all the home nations, you’ve also got the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Canada competing as well.
“All four of my events are going to be tough, but I’m excited about what might happen. Thankfully, the schedule is pretty good and I have a decent amount of rest time between my races.”
The swimmers were the first competitors to go through Team England’s Kitting Out process, which involved travelling to St George’s Park in Burton to receive the training and competition kit they will be required to wear during the Games.
The process mimics the procedure that proved so popular for Team GB ahead of the Olympics, and while this year’s Commonwealths might not quite be a ‘home Games’ for the English competitors, Willmott admits there are parallels to London.
“The whole kitting out thing just makes it feel a lot more real,” she said. “People have been talking about the Commonwealth Games for a while now, but it’s only really when you meet up with the rest of the team and get all your swimsuits for the competition that it sinks in how close it is.
“London was an incredible experience, and I know with it being the Commonwealths rather than the Olympics, it’s not quite going to be like that.
“But with the Games being in Scotland, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of home support for all the British athletes again. It maybe gives the Games a bit higher a profile than usual, and that can only be a good thing for all the Brits who are going to compete.”