IT’S fast approaching one year since breaststroke swimmer Craig Benson took his first glide in the water as an Olympic athlete.
As the Livingston teenager made his entry at the Aquatics Centre and gazed up into the 17,500 crowd from his starting block, the sheer mass of Union Jacks that resembled days gone by along The Mall, Benson realised it was his moment of truth.
And boy did he swim, taking a personal best of 60.04 in his 100 metres heat to qualify for the semi-finals before bowing out of the competition at the penultimate stage, an outcome he, initially, left him harbouring some frustration.
“I was disappointed at the time at not making the final but looking back now, I swam a personal best so I’m quite pleased with how I performed,” Benson, who is currently has his sights on a spot in Team GB’s World Championship squad, said. “My heart was pounding for most of the morning to be honest, but that all changed when the whistle was blown for us to make our way onto the blocks. Everything was so different going into the competition but when you stand on the block, it’s literally the same thing where you’ve got 100 metres to swim.
“But it was amazing, the crowd, the atmosphere, it’s hard to describe. I also had the current world record holder in the lane next to me so it was just really exciting being able to race people I had been looking up to for so many years.”
The experiences of last year’s Olympics have now been digested by the 19-year-old who perceives his main focus in life in a different light. The demands placed on an elite swimmer remain very much the same: early morning starts, training sessions six, sometimes seven days per week, a controlled diet – a daily regime that tests even the most ardent professional athletes to the limit.
But time away from the pool has also seen a shift in pattern for the Warrender Baths club swimmer. Benson is very much part of the London legacy, a pivotal figure to aspiring young sports enthusiasts keen to follow a similar pathway.
“The way I approach my training and set my goals are completely different now,” He said. “This time last year I considered myself more of a junior athlete and the Olympics were more of a dream really. But since the Games, I have been aiming to beat the best in the world so a lot has changed.
“I’m getting recognised at swimming meets now and young kids are coming over to get my autograph – it’s a really good feeling and I do laugh to myself sometimes as it’s still a little bit strange for me. I’ve not done so much on the senior circuit yet to become a hero as such, but I’d like to think some of the younger swimmers will look up to me and see that they can do what I’ve managed to achieve.”
Pressure is simply part of the DNA found within the teen’s new-found identity, but Benson has broad enough shoulders to counteract such obstacles. He is expected to qualify for Team GB at Sheffield in two weeks, earning a place in the squad for the World Championships in Barcelona at the end of next month, a competition he has high hopes for.
He said: “It feels a lot different comparing this year to last. I was the underdog last year and went into these competitions relaxed knowing that if I didn’t make it then it wasn’t a disaster, whereas this time I’m expected to qualify so there is some pressure on me. But I tend to rise to pressure and thrive on it so it’s a good opportunity for me this year.
“I feel I have a really good chance of pushing for the medals in Barcelona. Obviously my first step is to make sure I am on the team which isn’t going to be easy but if so, I will be going there and pushing for the final.”
A new challenge is on the horizon this autumn when Benson will begin his accountancy and finance degree at the University of Edinburgh. He is looking forward to testing himself academically, but is adamant he won’t allow student life to overshadow his performances in the pool – unwilling to make allowances even for the customary freshers’ week.
He explained: “Swimming is, of course, a huge priority for me so if my Uni work gets too much, I’ll need to try and cut it back, perhaps going part-time which will make it more manageable. I might see if I can go out to a couple of the nights they have going during the first week because you need to be able to meet people, but I don’t think I will be joining in with all the usual ins and outs of student life.”