What does Swimathon mean to you?
DG: I still find the event incredibly exciting. The root of this must be how it enables normal people to do extraordinary things. Everyone’s challenge is very much their own – but not only do their efforts benefit themselves, they benefit their country and the charities.
Being part of something that gives swimmers a very well earned excuse to celebrate feels good. Supporting good causes and helping them further their worthwhile work really means something to me.
I believe in swimming and I absolutely love anything that motivates people to dive into their local pool.
Why do you think Swimathon has been so successful?
DG: For swimmers, the variety of the challenges on offer is key. That, and the fact that whilst you may only walk round the corner from your house to take part, you know that you’re actually contributing to an enormous nationwide event. A lot of people – even though they may not know it – are on the look out for an excuse to raise lots of money for good causes. Swimathon helps these people scratch that itch and rightfully become local heroes.
This is similar for the pools: they like to be able to help charities in a bigger way than they usually can. The event also helps them to engage with current and new swimmers in a different way than their regular diet of membership offers, swim lessons and the like.
What are your all-time highlights?
DG: Well, having been involved since the pilot event in 1986, there have been a few! One year, Princess Diana literally walked on water for Great Ormond Street Hospital – with the aid of special effects of course. She was just brilliant. On Swimathon’s 10th anniversary, Prince Charles visited us at the Queen Mother pool in London – and again couldn’t have done more to help the cause.
But as regal as these moments were they are no match to my memories of swimming with Daniel, aged just five. Smiling from ear to ear he swum two lengths, while his parents completed their team 5k. I also remember a team of octogenarians sending the Victoria Baths in Manchester into raptures as they ploughed through their 5k.
How has Swimathon changed over the years?
DG: In many ways, the event hasn’t changed in the slightest. The nature of swimming itself remains constant – particularly in how different from everyday life it is. Where else would you strip down to the bare essentials and dive into the most alien environment on the planet?
I believe that being in the water takes us back to who we really are. It’s somewhere we can really forget our stresses and strains. As 12.5 million people are more than aware, it’s this country’s best-kept secret.
The sociability of swimming is another aspect of the event’s enduring appeal. Pools are friendly places and – we like to think – even more so during Swimathon sessions!
What motivates you now and when you were swimming at an elite level?
DG: Events change our lives. Those sweaty palms, the raised heart beat – the adrenaline of being tested. Mix this feeling of an existence heightened for a short while with how great it is to be able to celebrate extraordinary achievements with other people and I think that sums up pretty well the forces which drive me.
Thinking back to where all this comes from, I guess my formative years as a dyslexic who lost his hair explain a lot. After a lot of flailing around to latch onto something, I found that I was quite good at swimming. From that point, aged 12, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were happy to help my dream.
Aged 14, I met an Olympian – and from that point on all I could think about was swimming for my country. I wanted to compete against the rest of the world. The flame was lit.
I must say that every goal is as individual as a fingerprint. The only perspective that matters is your own. With this in mind, a learner has as much chance of achieving great things in the water as someone with more experience.
Have you got any insider swimming tips you can offer this year’s participants?
DG: ‘Self talk’ is not often included in training plans – but it can be the difference between winning and losing. Before you get into the water, have a good look at it – take in its calm and beauty. Even if the pool is packed, I still think it’s possible to savour the experience you’re about to enjoy.
Then after you’ve swum, pull up onto the poolside and recognise how good you feel. Make sure you say to yourself: “I feel great now – I can’t wait to get back in again and give it another go.”
Any diet tips?
DG: Obviously avoid fats and remember carbohydrates aren’t called ‘comfort foods’ for nothing. I know it’s an old saying, but it still rings true for me: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper. Never, ever skip breakfast – and try not to make dinner your biggest meal of the day. Although, with so many good restaurants around these days that’s not always easy!
Your favourite pools?
DG: Aside from the outdoor pool which I learnt to swim in as a youngster, some of my fondest memories are of putting in the lengths in Crystal Palace’s 50m facility [in south London]. There’s nothing like swimming in the sunshine and, on the odd occasion when the sun actually came out, Crystal Palace’s floor-to-ceiling windows bathed the water in a wonderful golden light.
There’s also a private club that kindly allows me to use its stainless steel and green granite pool when I’m in the area. I can’t imagine why I like that one so much!
What are your views on current GB elite swimming? How are we looking two and a half years out from 2012?
DG: This country’s national swim team has never been stronger. The medal hauls of nine (including four Golds) at this summer’s World Championships in Rome and six in Beijing a year earlier both prove how far we’ve come since the all-time low of Sydney 2000.
The reason for this sea change is a long-term, consistent, rigorous, well-funded programme. The Lottery has been the main contributor to this last and crucial element – but it’s also great to see the sport’s first headline sponsor come on board, in the shape of British Gas. Swimmers in this country can now see that if their famously superhuman training efforts lead to success, that success can be well rewarded.
It also goes without saying that the opportunity to perform in home waters in 2012 is a great motivator.
One final factor which should, in theory, mean that great swimmers will continue to come through the ranks for many years is the fact that the Government has identified swimming as being one of the best three ways to tackle the scourge of our age: obesity. If it worked 150 years ago, when 600 public baths were built to tackle the problem of the day – dirt. Why not today? Maybe we need a modern version of the phrase of that age: ‘Godliness is next to cleanliness’?