Our Great White Hope

I have rarely been so excited about a sporting performance as I was watching Siobhan Marie O’Connor in the European Swimming Championships last week.

On the final of the women’s 4×100 medley relay, Great Britain were neck and neck with Finland, who were in the lane next to them. Siobhan was third to swim. Siobhan took over on the Butterfly leg. Watching her move was a joy to behold. Siobhan made her competitors look feeble as she gained nearly two seconds for team G.B.

Siobhan’s story is enough to inspire anybody. Born and brought up in Somerset, O’Connor was like many thousands of age group swimmers until the age of 10 (1). However, Siobhan was fortunate enough to have had one of the World’s greatest swimming clubs on her doorstep. When Team Bath came calling, Siobhan and her family were determined to make the most of this opportunity.

The difference between success and failure in a sport such as swimming can be marginal. On my lifeguarding course, I remember putting my arm around a dejected City of Birmingham swimmer that could not see a life for herself outside of the sport. Her brother went on to become national champion.

As a club swimmer, one of my own proudest moments was as part of the relay team for Bromsgrove in the Midland District Championships. This was one of the few opportunities that we had to swim long course (50m). The pool at Coventry was cooler than we were used to. However, this allowed for faster times and longer training sessions as the energy that we burned was retained better.

Tragically, Coventry Swimming Baths, the only Olympic sized swimming pool in the Midlands, is due to close. This is yet another step backwards for our sport. Worcestershire’s county pool at Sansome Walk in Worcester is also due to downsize. When I was at University in Hull, my local swimming baths had to be bankrolled by the N.H.S. in order to stay open.

Trying to persuade my University swim team to make the most of the facilities available to them was like banging my head against a brick wall. The team insisted on training twice a week, thus giving its members no real opportunities to improve. As a postgraduate, I have seen the same thing happen at two previous institutions. Some fantastic swimmers have been held back by an unwillingness on a University’s part to take our sport seriously.

Contrast this with the situation in the U.S. and Australia. Here, swimming is ingrained in the culture. The health, the psychological and the social benefits of the sport are readily recognised. Scholarships are available for those that excel. Universities offer excellent training and coaching facilities. Given the recent crisis in student mental health (2), one cannot see how U.K. Universities are not putting two and two together on this.

I do not blame Siobhan Marie O’Connor for wishing to postpone her education until she has got everything that she can out of her career. Bar some exceptions, such as Bath; Universities in this country seem to be stifling people. I saw in an interview (3) that Siobhan had wanted to become a Doctor. In my view, to have achieved what she has demonstrates grit, teamwork, resilience and selflessness, all attributes required to be an asset to the field of medicine.



  1. Williams, Ollie. Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Battered by Olympic swimming’s elements. [Online] 2013. [Cited: May 27, 2016.] http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/get-inspired/23444153.
  2. Student suicide figures increase. BBC News. [Online] BBC, May 25, 2016. [Cited: May 27, 2016.] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36378573.
  3. Team Speedo’s Siobhan-Marie O’Connor 20 Questions. Facebook. [Online] Speedo UK, September 22, 2015. [Cited: May 23, 2016.] https://www.facebook.com/SpeedoUK/videos/772090439567873/.