IT has been billed as the biggest night in Scottish sport, but Teesside swimmer Aimee Willmott is determined to ruin the host nation’s party on the opening evening of competition at the Commonwealth Games.
Willmott, who is a member of Middlesbrough ASC, will contest five events during the Commonwealth swimming programme, but her best chance of a medal comes today as she competes in her preferred discipline, the 400m Individual Medley.
The 21-year-old is ranked second in the field on timings, narrowly behind her British team-mate and reigning Commonwealth champion Hannah Miley, who will be wearing the blue of Scotland during this morning’s heats and, provided there are no shocks in qualifying, the final which is scheduled for 7.07pm.
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It is no coincidence that the swimming schedule has been arranged with two of Scotland’s leading performers – Miley and Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson – going for gold on the opening night, with the hosts hoping to benefit from the same momentum that helped carry Team GB to so much success during the London Olympics.
The best laid plans can sometimes go awry though, and after a string of impressive performances in the first half of the season, Willmott is confident of silencing any Scottish celebrations before they have begun.
“It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere and I feel really lucky to be involved in such a big occasion,” said the Teessider, who has written an exclusive column for The Northern Echo in the build up to the Games. “There’s going to be a lot of expectation on Hannah, but I have my own ambitions and targets, and I think the rivalry between British swimmers in a Commonwealth year is good.
“I just have to concentrate on my own performance, although hopefully I’ll draw inspiration from the crowd support and use it to my own advantage too.
“The first priority is obviously to get through the heats okay, and after narrowly missing out on a place in the Olympic final two years ago, I’ll be going out in the morning determined to put in a good swim.
“I know the final might be billed as me against Hannah, but I don’t really think either of us will be looking at it like that. We’ll both just be desperate to get to the wall first and win gold.”
While Willmott finished 11th in the 2012 Olympics and ninth at last year’s World Championships, Miley, who is three years her senior, made the final of both events, finishing fifth on each occasion.
The pair have moved much closer together in the last 12 months though, with Willmott winning a bronze medal at the European Short-Course Championships and claiming the national title as she shaved more than a second off her personal best in the 400m IM.
Later this year, she will relocate to London to be based at the Olympic pool in the build up to the 2016 Games in Rio, and the Commonwealth Games mark the start of a two-year period that is likely to define her career.
“I feel as though I’m heading into the time when I’m probably going to be at my peak,” said Willmott. “I’m not one of the young members of the team anymore, so after competing at all of the major competitions now, it’s time I started making finals and winning medals.
“That’s the aim here, and if I can do it, it’ll set me up nicely for the next World Championships and then hopefully on to the next Olympics in Rio.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot in the last year or so, but the only way to prove that is to do well at major championships. With the Commonwealths being in Glasgow, there’s going to be a lot of interest and attention , so I know I have to perform.”
From a personal point of view, a Commonwealth gold medal would catapult Willmott into the elite group of swimmers harbouring realistic ambitions of competing for an Olympic title in two years time.
And from a Team England perspective, it would represent an ideal start to a swimming meet that offers a welcome opportunity to banish some of the disappointment that accompanied a largely below-par showing from the British team in London.
“It would be a fantastic start for the whole team if I could bring home a medal on the first day,” said Willmott. “When you’re part of a team, you feed off what your team-mates are doing.
“If I can go out there and put in a couple of strong performances, it’ll lay down a marker for everyone else to follow. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do.”