If they gave out Olympic medals for confidence alone, then you could all but ink in the name of Craig Benson in the podium places this year, for while the 18 year old Scot may be a rookie on the senior international scene, he possesses an immense self belief that he hopes will propel him to the top of the tree in London. But it’s important to note that this is not arrogance, just a deeply held confidence in his own ability and what he needs to do to make it to the Olympic podium.
“I’m not going in with the attitude “I’ve qualified, I can just enjoy it and hope I swim well”, I’m determined to get into the final, and once I’m in the final I’m just going to take on Kitajima or whoever else is going to be going for that gold medal” he says mater-of-factly, with a determination that belies the fact that the Olympics will mark his senior international debut. “I’m not too fazed by the names of who I’m racing. It’s all very close at the moment on the rankings. There are the two Japanese swimmers who are a bit ahead of everyone else, but behind them it’s pretty close. I’m aiming to get a medal”
Such a statement could mark Benson out, perhaps setting himself up for a fall should he fail to deliver, but he is under no illusions as to what will be required if he is to attain his goal. “I have aimed really high, and I think that [reaching the podium] will probably need about 59.2. That’s my estimate and we’re basing my training on trying to get to that time. That’s what I’m 100% focussed on trying to get down to.” He explains, before letting the mask slip just briefly “It does seem a bit far off trying to get to that time, but I think I’m on target for it.”
It’s been a whirlwind journey over the past year for Benson, who started his competitive swimming career at Livingston and District Dolphins before moving to the Warrender Baths club as his performance improved. There he teamed up with coach Laurel Bailey who has guided him from difficult teenager to Olympian via the small matter of a world junior title, and has clearly been a major influence on his career.
“Yes definitely” he concurs. “Sometimes we’d fall out, mainly because I was growing up, and I’d find it hard to motivate myself to train, but me and Laurel have both worked on it a lot, how to change my mindset towards swimming and training, and now we get on just as well as any other coach and swimmer. My attitude towards training has changed so much over the past year or two. Now I’d say I’m one of the most committed people I know towards swimming; everything has seemed to come together and it seems to be improving really quickly at the moment.”
It’s an improvement that is evident on the clock, with a drop of almost 3 seconds in his 100m breaststroke personal best in the last 12 months or so, including significant improvements in two of the biggest races of his career at the World Junior championships in Rio de Janeiro and the final of the Olympic trials, which both saw him slice 0.8s of his best, winning that title and booking his place in London. But the mantle of world champion so nearly passed him by.
“I didn’t even qualify for the event” he recalls. “The QT was 62 point and I swam 63.1 at trials [in 2011] so I didn’t qualify for the individual swim and the only reason I was on the team was to make up a medley relay as I was the fastest breaststroker; turns out Grant Halsall ended up breaking his wrist before the competition started and we didn’t have a medley relay anyway, but I still went over and swam the individual breaststroke”
But that chequered build up didn’t affect his preparations or his mental state. “I’d swum at the European Juniors and after my results there I went into the competition aiming to get a medal. I wasn’t expecting to win gold at all, I thought a bronze would be a great achievement for me. Looking at the programme there were two guys, a Japanese and a Greek swimmer who were quite far ahead of me, entered at low 61’s so I thought a bronze would be what was achievable for me, but I took them on in the final and ended up just beating them.”
And there’s the crux of the matter; Benson is driven by that head-to-head battle, the chance to take someone on and race them, no matter the odds. “I love to compete, to race people and try to beat them. I’m an extremely competitive person. I just go in with the mindset that I don’t care who I’m racing I’ll try and race them. It doesn’t mean I’m going to beat everyone but I’d like to give them a good race.”
It was certainly an approach that served him well in Rio, and one he took with him to the Olympic trials in March. But once there, even his self confidence took a hit. “I remember swimming the semi and feeling quite disappointed and thinking to myself that I couldn’t really do it. I think I only took 0.1 off my PB in the semi and I felt terrible in the race too, heavy and slow and I remember thinking ‘where am I going to get this extra time from?’”
From there the importance of the coach-swimmer relationship he has developed with Bailey at Warrender becomes most apparent.
“I sat down with her and said ‘I want you to answer honestly, not just because you’re my coach, do you think I can do this?’” he recalls. “And she said yes I believe you can do it. After hearing that – Laurel normally gets it right, as she’s known me for so long – I just went into the final thinking I could actually do it.”
It’s a race that went almost exactly to plan, hitting the turn just behind eventual winner Dan Sliwinski – “I decided that I would need to go out really fast as I knew that Dan would go out extremely fast” – and holding off a late charge from fellow Scot Michael Jamieson over the closing metres. Not that Craig saw him coming.
“To be honest I had no idea where I was in the race” he can say with hindsight, “I just wanted to stay ahead of Michael and I just managed to do that by a couple of hundredths, there was nothing in it. I think if it had been a metre longer I wouldn’t have qualified!”
Selection achieved, the thought of competing in London is never far from his mind. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, picturing coming out for the final and people cheering. I feel as though I should be nervous, but I’m really not, I’m just really excited for it; I’ve literally never been so excited for anything in my life. I just can’t wait to come out, when your name is announced, just to hear the crowd cheer. I don’t think I’ll experience anything like it ever again, and I just can’t wait just for that moment.”
But will the pressure take its toll? Many British swimmers in the past have shrunk in such situations, but you get the feeling that won’t be the case with Craig:
“I quite like the high pressure situations to be honest, like a World Junior final, that’s a pretty big situation to be in, and trials that was obviously one too. I quite like to rise to high pressure situations – it seems to be when I swim my best”
And there’s the rub. He may have set himself ambitious targets for his Olympic debut, but if he can rise again to the pressure of the situation, who’s to say he can’t reach them? One thing’s for sure, those in the lanes next to him are going to get a race.