THIS time last year, Aimee Willmott was starting to emerge from one of the toughest times of her swimming career.

Her 2017 campaign had been ravaged by injury, forcing her to miss an intended date at the World Championships. A broken rib was painful enough, but the Teessider was also forced to undergo keyhole surgery in the middle of last summer to remove scar tissue around her knee.

As if that was not bad enough. Willmott also had to leave her previous base at London’s Olympic Park because the training scheme she had signed up to was shelved. She briefly returned to her former academic home at Teesside University before joining a new high-performance training group at the University of Stirling. With all of this happening in the space of a couple of months, it was certainly one of those years.

So when 2018 started, her main priority was to rekindle her love of swimming and convince herself that, at the age 25, she was still as passionate and driven as when she made her Olympic debut in London as a teenager. Almost 12 months on, and it is safe to say she has achieved that, and a fair bit more.

“It’s funny how two years can be so different,” said Willmott, who still regards Middlesbrough ASC as her home club despite her relocation to Scotland. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in 2017, but 2018 has certainly ticked a few boxes.

“I’m loving being up here in Stirling, and I’m loving my swimming. I feel really settled, and I’m happy with where I’m at in my career. And then, as an added bonus, I’ve also got the medal I’ve always wanted.”

Which brings us to the Commonwealth Games. Four years ago, in Glasgow, Willmott came within inches of claiming her first major gold medal as she was touched off by Hannah Miley in the final of the 400m Individual Medley at the Commonwealths.

It was a case of ‘so near, so far’, and she readily admits she struggled to come to terms with the disappointment of not quite being able to realise her ambitions.

As a result, this year’s Commonwealths on Australia’s Gold Coast were a chance to right some wrongs, particularly when it became clear that the 400IM was going to be another head-to-head with Miley.

“Going into the Commonwealths, I’d told myself not to put too much pressure on my swims,” she said. “I’d obviously had the injuries, and I didn’t want a repeat of Glasgow, where it took me ages to get my head around the fact I’d failed.

“I was telling myself, ‘If you get any medal, think of it as an achievement rather than a failure’. But of course in the back of your mind, you’re still thinking, ‘Will I ever win gold?’

“At the start of the meet, I was expecting some really competitive races. There were four or five of us that I expected to be close, but then me and Hannah finished a couple of seconds ahead of everyone in the heats. Suddenly, it was clear it was going to be another shoot-out, just like Glasgow.

“But the big difference this time was I felt more relaxed. I felt great through the race, and it was obviously amazing to win.

“It’s just a real sense of achievement. Obviously, winning a medal at the Olympics is a completely different level, but I’d won medals at lots of majors and always missed out on gold.

“I’m not saying I needed to win a gold to justify myself, but if I’d gone through my career without one, I’d probably have felt I missed out.

“I don’t have to worry about that now. The medal is there, and I’m Commonwealth champion. It’s nice to have achieved something I’ve been trying to do for years.”

The challenge now is to set new goals, but Willmott insists there is no chance of resting on her laurels. Twenty-five can hardly be classed as old, but in swimming terms, it places the Teessider closer to the end of her career than the beginning.

She will return to the pool at the start of next month when she competes in the Scottish Short-Course Championships, and is targeting April’s long-course trials, which will determine the make-up of the British team for July’s World Championships in South Korea.

Then, of course, looming on the horizon there is Tokyo 2020, and a chance to become a member of a select band of British swimmers that have competed at three Olympic Games.

“I’m at the stage of my career where I don’t want to look too far ahead, but we’re more than halfway through the Olympic cycle now, so of course Tokyo is in your mind,” she said. “It’s there as something to aim for, but I only want to go to the Olympics if I think I can achieve something when I’m there.

“As a (British) team, we’ve achieved so much in the last few years that the days of being happy just at making a major championships are long gone. Now, it’s about actually doing something when you get there.”

Longer-term, Willmott is beginning to make plans for when her competitive days are at an end. She has completed her level two coaching qualifications, and has set up a new business, Willmott Swim Skills, that will offer bespoke coaching, tuition and mentoring.

In January, she will host a coaching clinic at Tynemouth Swimming Club, and she is keen to pass on her experience and enthusiasm to a new generation of North-East swimmers.

“In part, it’s me starting to get back into the real world,” she joked. “But it’s also about me wanting to pass on my experiences to other swimmers.

“I love working with people who have never swum before, but then at the other end of the scale, hopefully I can help some of the talented youngsters who are starting to move into elite sport. If they can benefit from everything I’ve been through, that would be great.

“It’s a chance for me to continue doing what I love, and the plan is to combine it with my racing for the next few years. Hopefully, one will help the other and they’ll go hand in hand.”