Review: British Gas National Swimming Championships, 2012

The last few days I have been spending quite a lot of time down at the Aquatics Centre in Stratford watching the British Gas National Swimming Championships 2012. It is of course the venue for the swimming and diving events at this year’s London Olympics. And it’s fantastic.

This year, the national swimming trials coincides with the Olympics so it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase the venue and provide a dry run – or should that be wet run – for the Olympics. Virtually everything about the venue is amazing though I have heard some backstrokers complain about the wavy roof which makes it difficult to follow a straight line when you are swimming. Then there’s the price of the coffee which at £2.40 for an instant brew which you have to add your own milk to is nothing short of scandalous. But apart from that it’s great.

I had heard that the journey from Stratford tube station to the Olympics venue took you through the Westfield Stratford City Shopping Centre and was prepared to be suitably outraged at this blatant consumerism. But actually I’m ashamed to say that I enjoyed browsing the shops and restaurants, especially the Olympics 2012 gift shop and the two Speedo shops – a small retail outlet and a pop up shop near the Aquatics Centre. For a start it’s all open air which means it doesn’t feel like a shopping centre. Secondly, it’s all rather tasteful with nicely decorated trees which makes it feel a bit like Christmas – yes I know I’m shallow.

Olympics showcase

Maybe it’s because the National Swimming Championships are a showcase event for Olympics, but I was particularly impressed with the stewarding which was both friendly and helpful. Strangely, when you get out of the tube station there aren’t any actual signs telling you how to get to the Olympics venues (I hope they sort this out soon), but there were lots of officials on hand showing you exactly where you needed to walk at every stage of the journey – it’s only about five minutes walk in any case. Even the people operating the security check were much less grumpy than the guys you get at airports although the procedure was much the same.

The seats we had on Saturday night in Block 110 weren’t the best (they were close to the diving area which is best avoided unless you want to watch diving of course). But when we went back on Monday morning we were in block 102 which is close to where most of the swimmers turn – apart from the 50m races – and they were much better.

We could see most of the swimmers preparing in the area below us and had a great view of the big screen showing all the times for the competitors and video of them swimming from both above and below the water of course. The only slight grumble was the American commentator who pronounced just about every British place name wrong so that Aimee Wilmott raced for Middles-bro and Loughborough became Lo-Borough!

Of course it goes without saying that the swimming was great. My son competes for Barnet Copthall so it was good to see Oliver Keegan in the Butterfly heats (he narrowly missed the semis) and the club’s star swimmer, Charlie Boldison, who came 7th in the final in the 100m Backstroke final –  a tough race which 50m World Record holder Liam Tancock won, as expected.

Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds lines up for the 50m freestyle

But the real revelation to me were the Paralympic swimmers. I have never seen Paralympic events  before and I was impressed with their speed and sheer determination. As well as Ellie Simmonds, of course, who we saw compete in the 50m and 400m freestyle I was wowed by a guy called Anthony Stephens who swam 200m freestyle in 2 minutes 53 seconds.

That’s approximately 21 seconds for a length of a standard 25m pool!  Pretty bloody amazing considering he was born with no legs and only one fully developed arm. It is athletes like this that put all us fully limbed part time swimmers us to shame!