Heywood born Olympic hopeful Keri-Anne Payne is preparing for the biggest year of her life

Lancashire born Olympic favourite Keri Anne Payne is preparing for the biggest year of her life. And it's not just London 2012, as Emma Mayoh discove

You’d think any small boy would leap at the chance of swimming lessons with an Olympian world title holder. Not a bit of it. Gareth Payne just wants to go to the baths with his granddad.

Gareth’s auntie is Keri-anne Payne, the Heywood athlete who is one of this country’s leading medal hopes for London 2012. That doesn’t impress the ten-year-old who prefers having swimming lessons from his granddad, who is also Keri-anne’s dad, Jim.

In fact, the youngster has also shunned his own dad and another aunt, both former competitive swimmers, in favour of time in the pool with his granddad.

Keri-anne said: ‘He only has eyes for my dad, he just wants him and we don’t get a look in. It is funny really because out of all of us, my dad is the one that’s self taught.

‘I think it’s probably best though not to teach your own family. I remember my brother and sister doing it to me when I was little and it was infuriating. My sister still tells me how I can improve on my technique even now; I still struggle with hearing it but I suppose sisters are allowed to do it.’

The 23-year-old has been doing swimmingly on her own. In the past few years she won a silver medal from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and got gold at the World Championships in Rome a year later. But it was a win at the World Championships in Shanghai earlier this year that landed her a coveted place in next year’s London Olympics. She was the first British athlete to be confirmed in the team and she is country’s best chance of getting a gold when she competes in the 10k marathon event.

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While you might expect her to feel the pressure to win Keri-anne is remarkably relaxed about it.

‘There is no point in putting pressure on myself,’ she said. ‘Yes, competing in London does have its extra pressures but I try not to think about it. I would drive myself crazy.

‘I just need to get on now and focus and make sure I am in the best condition I can be next year. As long as I know I have done my best then I will be happy. If my best isn’t good enough hopefully people will understand that.’

Keri-Anne first started swimming when her family lived in South Africa before moving back to their home town of Heywood in Lancashire when she was 13. It has been the support of parents, Pat and Jim, and siblings Mark and Janine, along with a gruelling, never-ending training schedule with Lancashire teams including Aquabears in Rochdale, which has powered her to success.

The family’s support has even extended to them getting in the water with her, including in the British Gas Swim Series of open water events. Her brother and sister are both former professional swimmers, including representing South Africa’s national team. It was their influence that first sparked Keri-anne’s yearning to get into the water.

She said: ‘I was the annoying little sister that followed my brother around everywhere. I probably drove him crazy, but I was hooked.

‘I just love being in the water, I love everything about it, the training, the competitions, the friends I have made. I love the adventure of it. But I’ve been really lucky to have my family and friends behind me. I missed out so much of my schooling and lots of important occasions. I missed the birth of my niece Erin earlier this year because she was born on the same day as my race in Shanghai.

‘Things like that are hard when you are so close to your family. But I’m really lucky to be surrounded by people who understand.’

Keri-anne, who now does all of her training at Stockport Intensive Training Centre, has endured some grizzly encounters during her career. She had to swim through a sea of thousands of jellyfish off the coast of Melbourne in Australia, as well as swimming alongside animal carcasses in a river in Beijing. It’s just as well she loves what she does.

The former Cardinal Langley High School pupil, also an ambassador for British Gas who supports initiatives to give everyone opportunities to enjoy swimming, said: ‘Seeing all of those jellyfish and then getting stung repeatedly was not a nice experience. But there is always someone behind you who wants to be better than you. Unless the race is cancelled you just have to get in the water and get on with it.

‘It was good to get that one out of the way because I’m hoping it won’t get any worse that that. Fingers crossed.’

Next year will be important for another reason too. A matter of weeks after the London Olympics closes, Keri-anne will marry fellow Great Britain swimmer David Carry. She is organising the big day with the help of best friend and fellow sportswoman, Rebecca Adlington.

Keri-anne said: ‘Everything is pretty much sorted for the wedding already. I’ll be writing the invitations while I’m at training camp in the Sierra Nevada desert in Spain in December. I don’t feel stressed about it at all.‘Next year is certainly going to be a big one. No matter what happens it will always be a good year because I am marrying David.’

Keri-anne Payne is an ambassador for British Gas which supports initiatives to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy swimming. For more information visit www.britishgas.co.uk/swimming.

The print version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Lancashire Life 

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