Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Keri's gold mission

Ker-Anne Payne still has to pinch herself to believe she is the holder of an Olympic silver medal.

But the Stockport Metro swimmer is already plotting how to go one better in London in 2012.

The 21-year-old from Heywood took silver in the 10k open water race in Beijing just ahead of her Stockport team-mate Cassie Patten to continue a tradition of Olympic success for the Cheshire club.

Of the eight British swimmers who have won Olympic medals in the last twelve years, four have heralded from the Greater Manchester club with Payne and Patten joining Stephen Parry and Graham Smith as Metro medallists.


Silver and bronze helped Britain take a record number of podium places in China - enough to finish third in the medals table, behind superpowers USA and Australia.

Yet, having had a few months to reflect on this summer's success, Payne feels the biggest achievement is continuing her club's Olympic medal tradition.

"It was really good to have my team-mate Cassie there, to share the experience with her, because she's one of my good friends from Stockport.

"To be able to come back with the knowledge we did this for Stockport makes you very proud."

It was Smith in the 1996 Atlanta Games who started Metro's medal rush with a bronze in the 1500m freestyle while Parry followed in his footsteps in Athens in 2004 with a bronze in the 200m butterfly.

Payne, who also competed in the 200m and 400m individual medley, reflected on the gruelling two-hour swim in the ice-cold rowing lake of Beijing.

"Before the race I was very nervous, I just couldn't stop moving. As soon as I dived in it went though.

"I don't really remember too much about the race. I can remember the start and finish but the middle chunk is just one long blur. Swimming in the rowing lake there were markers saying 1000m, 2000m and it was useful to have those as a gauge. We also saw all our team-mates cheering along the side, which was fantastic.

"Around the last buoy it was just a case of going as hard and as fast as I could - last 100m it was go, go, go, put your head down and go for it."


Incredibly, 120 minutes of competition was not enough to separate the medallists by more than four seconds.

"The tight finish made it a very exciting race. I'm looking forward to the next couple because we gave the Russian gold medal winner Larisa Ilchenko a scare, I don't think she was expecting that. Hopefully we'll get her next time," Payne declared.

"It's been hectic since we got back and I've enjoyed every second of it. Meeting the Queen has been the highlight but it's also been lovely to go round schools and see the children's faces light up, hopefully inspiring one or two future Olympians."

Sean Kelly, head coach at Stockport Metro, was also on duty in Beijing.

"Getting two medals from one club is great," he said. "but, as a coach, you always want your swimmers to win and I can't lie, I was disappointed one of them didn't win the gold.

"I knew the open water event was where the girls were going to strike. They swam fantastically and kept up the good record of getting Olympic medals from Stockport."

The reason for Stockport Metro's unrivalled success at the Olympics is obvious to Kelly.

"The huge support we receive from the council is a massive factor. We're subsidised around £200,000 a year by the Sports Trust and a lot of people don't appreciate that.

"There's not that many schemes around the country that invest as much as that. It allows us to keep the cost of swimming down for the kids who come here. But we get out what we put into it, and what we deserve."

Originally published in the Manchester Evening News on December 30 2008

Saturday, 29 November 2008

In it for the Long haul: Paralympic gold medal winner interviewed

LS Sport sits down with a golden graduate, Giles Long, Leeds Uni’s own Olympic champ

As a triple Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder, a Member of the British Empire, and now a London 2012 ambassador Giles Long is easily one of Leeds University’s most successful sporting Alumni. But the accolades didn’t come without a fight for the swimmer who won medals at three consecutive Games from 1996 to 2004.

“I had dreams of going to the Olympics ever since the age of seven and I even told my mum and dad that I was going to win a gold medal. And then I had cancer as a teenager and I had to come to terms with, well, does going to the Paralympics answer that dream?”

The question of whether hopes of able-bodied sporting excellence can find fulfilment in a disabled sphere is answered with an emphatic affirmative: “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” Giles says providing validity for the maxim, “as long as you’re prepared to work at it and take the set backs but then carry on and still pursue that dream you can be anything you want to be.”

Giles’ inspiring outlook was one that as a young boy might not have been foreseen. After being diagnosed with a bone tumour at the age of thirteen he lost the use of his right shoulder through subsequent chemotherapy and operations. The impact of the event, occurring at such a crucial point in a person’s – and a swimmer’s – development was initially too surreal to acknowledge. “At first when someone tells you you’ve got a disease like cancer, and you’re that age, it really feels like it’s happening to someone else,” Giles confides, “It’s not until you physically start having the treatment that it really hits home.”

For a time the idea of switching goals and aiming to compete at the Paralympics was not one Giles was enamoured with, “principally because it meant acknowledging that I had a disability.” It was only after a chance meeting with an eminent swimming coach that Giles found the right frame of mind to continue.

“He told me, ‘Before you were ill you could do ten-thousand things, and now you can do nine-thousand, which means that you’ve got a choice. You can concentrate on the one-thousand things that you can’t do anymore, or you can concentrate on the nine-thousand things that you can still do.’” It was the spark that got Giles thinking. “I decided that I wanted to go to the Paralympics because I wanted to be the best I could be. The rest is history.”

Giles graduated from Leeds in 1997 with a degree in Geological Sciences under his belt. Back in Leeds to take part in the University’s ‘Celebrating the Games’ series of lectures, Giles found himself walking down the Otley Road for the first time in a while.

I ask him what memories the trip vivifies. “Coming back from the Games in 96 as a gold medallist was a terrific time. Most of the people on my course didn’t even know I was a swimmer; it was something I kept quite separate from that life. So all of a sudden after coming back from the summer having been all over the TV and they said, ‘Oh my god I didn’t realise!’ Seeing how much some people got from what I’d done was just awesome.”

Managing to balance training at an elite level with studying for a degree was done “with great difficulty” and on occasions socialising had to be come second. “There were times when I had to say ‘I’m not going to the Original Oak tonight because I’ve got training in the morning’” Giles tells me, “A lot of people would look at that and call it a sacrifice. I’d look at it and call it a choice. Everything in the world that’s worth doing is really difficult and all the fairly rubbish things, like watching This Morning when you’ve got exam revision to do, they’re all really easy.”

Looking forward to the 2012 Games, the first to be held on these shores for what will be 64 years, we chat about what impact it will have and how the Leeds graduate will be involved. As a 2012 ambassador Giles will be at the core of the momentous sporting occasion as he spends the build-up promoting the Games all over the country, sometimes being charged with persuading people of its relevance to them: “I was speaking to someone from Leeds today about this talk tonight and how 2012 will be something for the whole country and he said ‘Well, it really feels like a London thing.’”

Giles recalls, “So I said ‘Yeah but if you live in Leeds, you can get the train down to King’s Cross in two hours twenty minutes. And from King’s Cross there’ll be the javelin service that’ll take you to Olympic Park which means you’ll probably be able to get there quicker than someone that lives in South London.’ Now if that doesn’t mean that the Games is something for everyone then I really don’t know what is!” he reasons soundly and passionately. “There comes a point at which you have to say ‘This is something that’s going happen once in my lifetime’ and ask yourself if you’ll regret it once it’s been and gone and you didn’t go, you weren’t a part of it.”

The fantastic achievements of Britain’s swimmers in Beijing this summer, with a stand-out Paralympic performance from Eleanor Simmonds, came as little surprise to the man no stranger to gold himself. “It was a personal thing for me with Ellie winning her golds [in 100 and 400 metres freestyle] because I’m her athlete mentor. My input has been infinitesimally small compared to all of the hours of slog that she spent up and down the pool but to be able to share in someone’s success in whatever tiny, tiny way, well that is the essence of what we were talking about; people up and down the country taking a piece of the Olympics, taking a piece of the Paralympics, and having it for keeps.”

When I ask about the forthcoming pool Giles is reflective: “It’s a shame it’s not a 50metre pool but there’s only so much land, there’s only so much money. But the brand new pool sounds like it’s going to be absolutely fantastic; yet another feather in the cap that makes this university one of the best in the country.”

Giles has an autobiography out at the moment entitled Changing to Win. It carries simple motivational methods that can be used to succeed in many tasks, from getting out of bed in the morning to achieving that long-term goal. To take hold of change and use that as an inspiring force. Available from all good books shops.

Originally published in Leeds Student on November 28 2008

Saturday, 25 October 2008

It's all academic: The Academy opens in Leeds

Academy venues are famous the country over. It was about time Leeds got one of its own. LS2 were very kindly invited along to the grand opening...

The Venue

As a piece of architecture, the freshly named Leeds Academy is spectacular. The nineteenth century building was always wasted having a distinctly generic club as its incumbent but it’s a loss the current occupant more than makes up for. The separating layer between second and third floors has been ripped out to open up an expansive yet intimate space with optimum acoustics. The venue’s plush chrome naming on the outside is a signifier of the sharp use of design within. It’s a shame they couldn’t resist hanging four bashful disco balls from the ceiling. They looked like History of Art student in the Brotherton; not really sure what they were doing there.

LS2 sat in the fancy balcony section looking out onto the stage with a perfectly angled viewpoint. There are more than a fair few rows of extremely comfy, prim and proper seating with enough legroom to allow for clambering between aisles. It seems more than a bit of an odd juxtaposition compared to the squashed revelers below but we weren’t complaining. Throw in the bar at the back of the section which seemed to have more staff than punters – making service instantaneous – and plasma screens showing the gig going on behind you and it's a winning combination.

The Academy’s structural masterpiece - and what will doubtless turn into its signature features – are the fantastically grandiose iron arches supporting the crisply white ceiling. At first glance they look like a mimic replication of Tudor architecture but on closer inspection they have an industrial characteristic. It’s like a sixteenth century builder has joined forces with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The luxuriously purple curtains enclosing the stage add an element of theatre to proceedings; they provide a fantastically unique frame to the drama enclosed.

Underground Club

LS2 had high expectations for this much rumoured-about little club. Unfortunately these expectations weren’t quite met. Situated, surprisingly, underground the main room, the after-party venue immediately strikes you as being exceedingly white. It’s clearly a deliberate design choice but one that seems flawed. You don’t want to party in a place that reminds you of the hospital where your great aunt died. In spacial terms, think Wire or even Hifi but with a clinical edge. It didn’t work; there was no charm. Our judgement may have been influenced by the fact it was populated by numerous older folk also on a freebie night out (all on the weirder side of inebriation) but we doubt it. An amusing side note on the club found manifestation in a sign nailed to the wall: “We kindly ask that patrons refrain from smoking in the venue.” Funny, we thought it wasn’t really a matter of choice since September 1 2007.

Originally published in Leeds Student on October 24 2008