Swimming: Benson’s rise to British No. 1 puts him in swim for shot at Olympics

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Among the stress of exam preparation and identifying potential career pathways, many sixth-year high school pupils are also dreaming of warmer climates this summer as they wait to embark on a ‘traditional’ celebratory holiday with some close friends.

For 17-year-old breaststroke swimmer Craig Benson, however, London is the only destination he wishes to descend upon come the end of July. The youngster is now just under a month away from being put through the biggest test of his life so far – Olympic trials for the GB swimming squad.

Benson, a product of the city’s Warrender Swimming Club, one of the UK’s top institutes in its field, is optimistic about his chances of representing his country at the Aquatics Centre, Olympic Park, after 2011 proved to be a hugely successful and inspirational period that he still looks back on with an element of surprise.

“If you asked me 12 months ago if I believed I had a good chance of making the Olympic Games this summer then I would have laughed at the prospect of that happening,” he said. “I think I’ve got a decent chance now as I’ve been training so hard and have been following a gluten-free diet after a blood test revealed I couldn’t eat certain foods I had been doing for many years. I was getting really bad stomach cramps which restricted my swimming but I’ve now been performing really well ever since. Based on the current rankings, I am number one junior at breaststroke in Britain and one of the best in the world so I have just got to give it my best shot.”

His remarkable achievements in the pool last year propelled the James Young High student to the pinnacle of intense competition, both at home and internationally across Europe and South America. His exploits included a gold medal in the 100 metres final at the World Junior Championships in Peru, yet he excelled further at the Commonwealth Youth Games in September where he dominated his category winning gold for Scotland in the 50, 100 and 200 metres breaststroke sprints. With this in mind, Benson believes he has little to fear.

“This is going to be the year of making the transition between junior and senior swimming but one I am really looking forward to. It is going to be the only shot I have to compete at a home Olympics so I am completely focused on giving myself the best opportunity to make the team.

“I will be gutted if I don’t make it, but I know I’ll have another shot at it in four years time. I don’t fear the seniors I’ll be competing against at the trials as the fastest guy in this country is only half a second faster than my best time so it’s really close. The only thing I think they might have ahead of me is experience.”

Similarly, to many Olympic hopefuls who are preparing for imminent trials, Benson has just returned to his home in Livingston from a three week training camp in Singapore.

Despite enjoying such privileges, a pleasure the youngster wholly values, Benson reinforces the dedication required to be able to compete at such an elite level. “It was great to go out there, I could focus entirely on my swimming and have no other distractions so I probably managed the best training sessions I have had in my whole career. It is such a huge commitment and a totally different way of life to most teenagers. But with the results I have achieved and the places I get to visit, it is completely worth the time and effort.”

Benson’s incredible efforts of 2011 were epitomised when he was honoured as Young Sports Person of the Year at the Sunday Mail and Sportscotland Scottish Sports Awards in December.

He added: “It was a massive achievement and I feel really overwhelmed. Not only was I recognised within my own sport, but to be acknowledged over every other sport in Scotland is really an amazing feeling. The other two guys who were nominated have also achieved remarkable things so I was surprised to win it but very pleased.”