Manchester was my second major games, (having competed at the Sydney Olympics two years previously), but I certainly felt that more was expected of me come 2002. Pre commonwealth rankings predicted podium finishes at the very least, and I was aware that Manchester offered me a great opportunity to make my mark on the world stage, particularly since my preparation that year had been boosted by my move away from home in Reading to live and train in Glasgow to take advantage of the long course facilities there. I had taken a gap year from school after my A levels, and training in the depths of a Glaswegian winter was certainly made easier by the prospect of a summer home Games to look forward to.
The 800 was my first race and I had a good heat qualifying fastest for the final. The home nations were swimming well, and there was a good camaraderie between us. We were ‘buddied up’ with swimmers from the Scottish and Welsh teams for a points-based competition devised by Bill Sweetenham that culminated in our team winning a rather nice engraved paperweight at the end of the meet. The aquatics centre was a great venue – it was relatively small, so spectators were packed tight very close to the pool and with a partisan crowd the noise generated at times was unbelievable.
Winning the 800 was incredible. I was delighted at my time, which was a PB and at 8:28 probably didn’t feel as fast it was. Receiving my medal in front of a home crowd and singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with them was amazing. I could barely contain my excitement as I travelled back to the Athlete’s village, and hardly slept at all that night. Not that this mattered much, as the joyous confidence the win gave me buoyed me through the rest of the meet.
The 400 Free was always going to be tougher race for me to win, as I was pitched against some sprinters stepping up from the 200, but I felt like I had a lot of ‘easy speed’ in the first half, and was able to pull ahead from the rest of the field in the second half of the race to claim my second title. Whilst waiting for my medal ceremony Ian Thorpe congratulated me on my swim, and I remember being thrilled that such a sporting superstar even knew who I was, let alone would take the time to speak to me as he was preparing for his own races. The fact that he broke the 400 Free World Record during the games only heightened the compliment!
My final race was the 400 IM. This was a ‘fun’ event for me, in that I hadn’t focused my training around it at all, but I very nearly grabbed a medal in the closing stages, eventually finishing 5th and narrowly missing Sharron Davies’ British record in the process.
One of the nice things about Manchester was that the accessibility of the games in both location and media coverage meant that my family and friends were able to appreciate the ‘festival’ of a multi-sport event. I absolutely loved the excitement of the athlete’s village, team kitting out days, different sports and ceremonies that build the atmosphere of a major games, and it was wonderful that the party atmosphere of Manchester was able to convey this to my visiting friends and family.
I left Manchester on a train the day after the Games, with a few other swimming medallists and we were excited to be able to show our medals to some kids on the train. On arrival back in Reading I got stopped crossing the road outside the station by someone who asked if the picture on the front of the Reading Evening Post was me (it was!). It was a nice welcome home, particularly as I had spent the majority of the year in Glasgow and it was good to share the win with the town that I started my swimming career in as an age grouper.
As an aside, my experience of the home games in Manchester is one of the reasons I am very much looking forward to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Glasgow is a fantastic city, and Tollcross leisure centre my training venue in the years leading up to my own Commonwealth Games. The members of Glasgow swimming club (including a very young Michael Jamieson!) really took me under their wing when I first moved there as an 18 year old in 2001, and I was always very grateful for their support when I was a long way from home.
Medal banner: Twitter/@JamesGoddard83