Click the link to catch up with Part 1. All names are false to protect the identities of people mentioned bar that of my son and my uncle.
After claiming Club Swimmer of the Year in early 1999 (just shy of turning fifteen), little did I realise that I’d reached the peak of my career at Ashton-under-Lyne Swimming Club despite the fact that I was still getting better and better.
Everything remained pretty much as it were. I was leading the way in the juniors and winning most races I partook in, while I was closing the gap on the opposition in the seniors; even winning a decent amount of races. I was garnering more success than ever at Broughton on an individual basis too.
One surprise that came from the Broughton meets was victory in the 200 metres backstroke; something nobody was expecting. I was regarded a brilliant backstroke sprinter, but my ability over greater distances was unknown. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense because of the training I was doing with my Uncle Mick at the gym which was very much stamina based.
My performance was so impressive that I managed to make the Central Lancashire team to compete at Everton in the regional finals. I was selected to race in the 200 metres backstroke and as part of the medley relay team. Regional level was the highest level I reached, something I’m quite proud of even if I perhaps could have gone further. I finished a commendable fourth in the 200 metres backstroke, but I forget where we finished in the relay.
Only one other Ashton swimmer at that time managed to make the Central Lancashire team. Liam joined me as a reserve and didn’t get the chance to compete.
It was a second unbeaten season in the Central Lancashire Junior League at 50 metres backstroke. That’s not to say I won every race though. John from Stalybridge almost capitalised on an error I made in one of our races (at Stalybridge – the away gala) and managed to push me to a dead heat. Close, but no cigar, John. It was a second gold in two consecutive years and Ashton Swimming Club itself managed its best performance in the league for a long time that year too.
On the surface, all was fine at Ashton, but you only needed to scratch it to realise that not everything was what it seemed. Unfortunately, nepotism had a hand in some of what went on at the club and despite my success (or perhaps as a result of it), my popularity seemed to wane both with my teammates and the parents.
The parents had great influence at the club as they did a lot to keep the club running. I feel there was a touch of animosity towards my own parents because they weren’t part of this clique. They had their hands full taking my younger sister gymnastics training or to competitions all across the country; something I’ve never lamented because she was a damn sight better gymnast than I was a swimmer. She SHOULD have been an Olympian but for an unfortunate back injury. She frequented the Great Britain team down in Lilleshall and definitely needed my parents more than I did.
The only problem was that they were unable to protect me from the sudden animosity I was receiving and it was me against the whole club. Darren seemed to lose interest in me in favour of Jamie; somebody who I’d now overtaken as the best breaststroker at junior level. I was always suspicious Darren dropped me because I suddenly had his number too. Darren had always been the best swimmer at Ashton, but I was now just as good if not better.
I was the undisputed best junior at the club. There could be no argument then and there can be no argument now. I could beat everybody my age and younger and most people older at any stroke. It was to my detriment because people turned on me as a result. They assumed me to be cocky. I wasn’t cocky at all. I’d gotten good; nothing more. I didn’t have it in me to be arrogant unless I was faking it. I was on my own. The people at the club at that time couldn’t possibly understand how left out they made me feel and it hurts to the day.
So I changed my game. I stopped being humble in victory. I became exactly what they all thought of me. I became arrogant. I approached the pool with a cocky veneer. I swam aggressively. I thrust my fist in the air after every victory. I did it for me. Ashton Swimming Club could go swivel as far as I was concerned and they knew that I’d changed.
They reacted by questionably disqualifying me in an interclub gala for an illegal turn when perhaps fifty percent of all kids there were performing illegal turns or doing something that wasn’t by the book. My mum tells me that they even awarded victory to Darren in one race when I had in fact won. I couldn’t attest to that as I honestly can’t remember. My mum isn’t known for telling tall tales though.
I reacted further by missing the occasional training session and not putting in the effort I used to, but still turned up to every gala and did the job. I knew I could so it really didn’t matter to me. I could live with missing training to hang out with people who actually liked me. I didn’t feel bad about it despite their attempts to make me feel that way.
I wasn’t at all surprised that I didn’t retain my Club Swimmer of the Year award. I didn’t care either. I knew I’d been the best again. I knew I’d won the club probably half of its entire total of points that season alone in the league. Not giving me the award was another attempt to get under my skin and I knew it. I ignored it; ready to go again and beat everyone the next season.
I made the Central Lancashire team for a second time owing to my performances at Broughton. It was much the same as the previous year where I put in a good performance, but sadly it wasn’t enough to claim my highest ever honours in the sport. I do enjoy telling people I represented my county at regional level though.
The next season would be my last in the Central Lancashire Junior League owing to my age. It would also be my last at Ashton Swimming Club. I decided I was going to quit swimming after that season, but told nobody. I wanted to go out with a bang.
It was like déjà-vu. I led the way for Team Paul. I won virtually every race I competed in and gave no quarter to anybody. I kept largely to my own company and represented only myself. I knew that each win and each fist pump every time I did win grated on so many people and that only spurred me on. I wanted to annoy them. They deserved it.
They couldn’t leave me out of Senior League sides anymore because I was better than all the seniors. I feel so narcissistic saying all of this now, but I really was that good; at least compared to the guys at Ashton anyway. I’m a humble guy, but the way I was made to feel in those two years turned me into a completely different animal.
For the third year running, I won the 50 metres backstroke title in the Central Lancashire Junior League and went unbeaten once again. No blemish of a dead heat this time. I won every single race. Three years unbeaten at 50 metres backstroke in the Central Lancashire Junior League. I’ll eat my hat if anybody has replicated that since.
I cleaned up at the interclub galas too. There was no competition for me at Ashton. Not anymore. I was going out on top. I was retiring in my prime.
I announced my decision shortly after the season ended. I can’t remember the reaction, but I’m fairly sure there were few people bothered. I’m sure most were happy to see the back of me. I was certainly happy to see the back of them. What sixteen year old would want to continue feeling so ostracised?
So that was my swimming career done.
Except it wasn’t. At the Central Lancashire presentation dinner that year, I met a girl called Louise. We became boyfriend and girlfriend shortly after. She swam for a club called Ramsbottom Rascals; the team regarded second best in the Central Lancashire league behind Tyldesley (oh, how I hated that club and the pretentious swines that swam for them). The coach of Ramsbottom, Rob, asked through Louise if I would speak to him some time.
I agreed and he managed to persuade me to give swimming another bash. I thought it was worth seeing how another season would go. Rammy were a better club with better swimmers and Rob himself was a Great Britain coach. How could I refuse?
Rob was great. He really took me under his wing. He saw the great potential I had in me and knew that he could harness it and make me better. He was only interested in what I was best at too so stuck stringently to my backstroke. I was already good for sub thirty seconds over 50 metres; his intention was to get me down to twenty-eight, perhaps even twenty-seven seconds. It was doable. I had the ability.
The only problem I had with Rob taking such a shine to me was that it incited immediate envy from the other swimmers. They despised the fact that I was his golden child. What didn’t help is that I was a kid from somewhere else. They were all ‘Burmunians’ who lived and went to school in and around Bury. I was born and bred in Ashton-under-Lyne. I was an outsider.
I actually remember one of the swimmers talking frankly with me. He was one of the better ones. He straight up told me that people didn’t like the way Rob treated me and it was causing people to dislike me.
I knew then and there that this was never going to work. I’d gone from a club where people hated me for being good to a club where people hated me because I was from another town and the manager liked me. I had too much going on outside of swimming to cope with the pressure of being a black sheep no matter what club I swam for.
I performed well that season. I gave Rammy and Rob my all. I won a great share of my races, including both in the galas against Ashton; something my mum always loves to remind me of (I often wonder who feels the greater animosity towards Ashton out of me and my mum). Rob also brought my times tumbling too and I actually managed to get into the low twenty-eight’s in my 50 metres backstroke. I’d shaved four seconds off my personal best in three years. That side of things was great.
What was missing though was the love. I was going through the motions. Swimming was breaking my heart. How could I give myself so willingly to something that was only serving to hurt me?
When the season ended, I thanked Rob for all of his hard work and for the opportunity, but told him I was going to quit swimming once and for all. He didn’t try to stop me. He was disappointed, but I think he knew that I was suffering and it was time to bow out.
This time I called it a day for good. I’ve never swum competitively again since then. I’ve thought about it. I’ve missed the thrill of competing every day since, but whenever I’ve thought about it, I’ve remembered how awful the whole experience made me feel. That’s something that will never go away.
I love swimming. It’s an amazing sport and I would urge every parent to get their kids into it because it can be so rewarding, especially in terms of health and fitness. It can be great fun too and there are bound to be friends you’ll make. I still have friends from my swimming days (though maybe not after they read this story). Don’t let this story deter you from getting your children into this magnificent sport. Get them into it, please.
I don’t hate Ashton Swimming Club anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I don’t even hate the people who made me feel worthless. Time is a great healer. I had the best years of my swimming career at Ashton and I wouldn’t have become as good as I was without them. All of the medals I amassed over the years I attribute in part to the coaches at Ashton. They had a hand in destroying what they’d built in me, but I perhaps should have been stronger and not allowed hate to ruin my career.
Maybe one day I’ll get Caellum into swimming. Maybe one day I can take him to Ashton and have him carry on the legacy I left behind. I’m sure things have changed from almost twenty years ago.
If you are interested in joining or having your child/children join Ashton-under-Lyne Swimming Club, Ramsbottom Rascals Swimming Club or The Olympic Gym then click the appropriate link. I cannot advocate children getting into sport highly enough.
Also please check out my Uncle Mick’s blog at http://www.seedofspeed.com/. Not only is he the founder of The Olympic Gym, but has coached a number of sporting superstars; especially during his time as fitness coach at Manchester United Football Club. His musings are definitely worth a read!