Cailtlin McClatchey represented Scotland and GB in three Commonwealth and Olympics Games. Here she provides an honest account of the highs and lows in her swimming career and the most important factors in her success.
Since I was two years old swimming has been a huge part of my life. My parents, who were both Commonwealth swimmers, encouraged me to have swim lessons from an early age, as they wanted me to be confident in the water for safety reasons, and because I enjoyed swimming.
Twenty plus years later I have been fortunate enough to compete at three Olympic games, have won two Commonwealth gold medals and multiple world medals. However, the path of an international athlete is rarely smooth; there are inevitably many highs and lows along the way. For me, my success happened when I took responsibility for my own career and when I simply enjoyed the sport.
I started swimming training at the age of eleven and I don’t remember being particularly remarkable at it compared to my peers. If anything I wasn’t as good as them because they had all been training and competing in the sport for years whereas I was very much new to it all. At first, I enjoyed swimming lessons for social reasons, but soon my enjoyment developed into a love of the sport.
I was fourteen when I started to take swimming training more seriously. I participated in more sessions each week and even started doing the odd early morning session. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic sports teacher in Miss Claridge and some great swimming coaches – Phil Coy and Brian Brinkley, who all inspired me, but most importantly allowed me to balance a social life alongside school and swimming. During this period I witnessed so many coaches pushing their young swimmers, leaving them with little time to enjoy life away from the pool and ultimately leading to them dropping out of the sport prematurely.
Up until 2004 I had always put my academic studies before swimming as I had known early on that I wanted to go to University. My goal for swimming was to race hard and to win at Nationals; I never really looked beyond that.
In 2004 I was training harder in the pool than I ever had before. However, at the start of that year my goal was still to do well at my A levels and go to University. But by March things started to change. I went to the Olympic trials and qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens! I couldn’t believe it, as I had never even been to an international meet before and here I was qualifying to swim in the biggest sporting event in the world! Of course this was an opportunity I could not turn down – it was an opportunity of a lifetime and one which many athletes spend their career working towards. So I took my A-levels out in Cyprus on an Olympic training camp. It was definitely hard finding time to fit in revision and being away from my school friends was difficult, but it was it was also exciting and exhilarating to be training for the Olympics!
The Athens Olympics was an incredible experience and our 4x200m freestyle relay team made the Olympic final. Being at the Olympics ignited a spark in me. It allowed me to view this new world beyond British National events, something which I had never even considered before. I was hooked and I had a new priority; I wanted to be one of the best swimmers in the world
After the Olympics I moved to Loughborough University to study Politics and to allow me to train at some of the best facilities in the country. I stepped up my training to 10 x 2 hour swim sessions a week and started lifting weights. That year I won a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle at the 2005 Montreal World Championships. It was great, but I wanted to be even better. This was when when I decided to take a lot more responsibility for my own career.
In the run up to the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth games I upped my training to 30 hours a week. It was hard and made even more challenging as I had a broken arm to contend with. I asked my coach and the team of sports scientists what extra things I could do to gain those extra few tenths of a second over my competitors. I took full ownership over my swimming career knowing that I had a great support team behind me helping me to become a better athlete. I was fiercely determined that I was going to win the 400m freestyle at the Commonwealth Games and not even a broken arm was going to stop me.
It was the first day of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. Australia were a force to reckoned with in the pool. They had a hugely successful Olympic games in Athens and were about to compete at a home Commonwealth Games. My first race was the 200m freestyle with the 400m freestyle scheduled for later on in the week. In the 200m event I was up against the Australian golden girl and world ranked number one swimmer Libby Lenton. The race happened so quickly; I remember standing behind the blocks for the final, the commentator calling my name, the Scots cheering and in that moment I believed I could win. In the final few metres of the race I shut my eyes, held my breath and I touched the wall. I turned round to look at the scoreboard and instead of seeing 10,000 Australian flags waving in the air I heard my Scottish teammates cheering. I had won the Commonwealth Games and in a new games record; I had won Scotland’s first gold medal and I had beaten the home favorite when no one thought anyone could!
The rest of the games for Team Scotland were brilliant, I won a second gold medal in the 400m freestyle and we won a total of 6 gold’s in the pool which was our best result ever. All the tough training sessions and 5am starts had been completely worth it.
Over the next few years (2007-2009) I was prone to injury and bad health and was not enjoying the sport anymore. I went to my second Olympic games and made two finals but didn’t achieve the results I wanted.
2010 was the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. I was going in as defending champion, but I hadn’t been training all year due to a reoccurring chest infection. I also felt my training programme wasn’t right for me, but at the time I just stayed in the group as it was the easy thing to do. I should have admitted there was a problem, taken responsibility and got help, but I had left it too late.
In the 200m freestyle I didn’t even make the final, which was devastating. I gave myself an ultimatum; I could quit then and there, or chose the harder option of trying to work towards going to my third Olympic games in London.
I chose the Olympics and at the end of 2010 I moved coaches and training squads and I finished University by getting a 2:1.Again I decided to take responsibility for my own career by doing everything I could to become a better athlete. I had an incredible coach, Ian Armiger, who helped me to regain my love for the sport again. Ian’s philosophy was “A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer” and I can honestly say that at every 5:30am training session I attended, Ian would always be smiling, happy and joking. In 2012 I qualified for the London Olympic Games and I reached 3 Olympic finals. The year before I wasn’t even ranked to make the GB team let alone make 3 Olympic finals. My next goal was to compete at a home Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
I left Loughborough and moved up to Edinburgh to train and study a Masters degree in Performance Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. I am part of a brilliant swim team, have a great coach in Chris Jones and have a fantastic support network both at swimming and University. In 2013 I won two bronze medals at the World University Games and achieved my best ever University results.
The Glasgow Commonwealths were an amazing experience. I may have not got the results I had wanted, but I felt I was part of something very special. I raced in front of a home crowd and it was just amazing hearing people chant my name. I also got to witness the next generation of Scottish athletes make their mark, much like many of us had done in Melbourne nine years ago.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an amazing international career. I have had great support from family, friends, coaches, support staff, UK Sport, Sport Scotland and the Scottish Institute of Sport. I have travelled around the world, met some incredible people and learnt lots of skills all through swimming. I have learned that I need to take responsibility for my own career by managing the skilled people around me, but most importantly, I have learned that for me, enjoying what I do, is the real key to success.