Tees gold medallist swimmer Aimee Willmott talks to Tees Life co-editor Martin Walker…
Gold Coast swimming heroine Aimee Willmott reckons a 50-metre pool for Teesside could help unearth future stars of the sport.
The 25-year-old, who won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Australia earlier this year, has backed an ambitious bid to develop a top-level pool for the Tees region.
Community Interest Company (CIC), The Tees Valley International Aquatic Centre, is leading the campaign and is raising money to fund an initial study to get the project off the ground.
And Middlesbrough swimmer Willmott, who had to trek to Sunderland to access a 50-metre pool during her developing years, reckons it’s a no-brainer if we want to nurture future swimming stars.
“When I was training in Middlesbrough, we would go to Sunderland twice a week, and my parents had to leave work early on a Wednesday so I could access that facility,” Willmott told me.
“My school were really supportive, too, but if we had a 50-metre pool on the doorstep it would have made things a lot easier, and we could have accessed more pool time, and a lot more quality work can get done in a larger pool.
“People underestimate the need for a 50-metre pool. But all of the major competitions – the Olympics, the World and European Championships and the Commonwealth Games – all use them, so to train in the same environment would be a huge benefit.
“If we had a pool here it would be brilliant for Middlesbrough and our swimmers, but it could also host galas and bring in young swimmers from around the region, which would be a really positive thing for Teesside.
“I do think we’d then see even more success than we’re already seeing here at Middlesbrough Swimming Club.”
Speaking of which, we meet Willmott at the Neptune Centre in Berwick Hills, where the freshly-minted Commonwealth gold medallist and Olympian started out.
“I’m always really proud to be from Middlesbrough, and to call myself a Boro girl, no matter where I train,” said Willmott, who currently trains in Scotland.
“The support I always get from the people of Middlesbrough, wherever I’m training or competing, is fantastic.
“When I was at the Gold Coast, there was so many messages flooding through and social media posts – people asking me when I’m going to have a celebratory parmo, and when will I be on the pitch at Boro – it was really nice to have such a huge support network here in Middlesbrough and Teesside.
“Every time I come home I have access to the Neptune Centre and the facilities here with Middlesbrough Swimming Club, so it’s always nice to know I’ll be part of this club, no matter where I am.
“The guys here have helped me all the way through and that has pushed me throughout my career.”
Willmott won her gold medal in the 400m individual medley in Australia after a difficult build-up. She’d been forced to move training bases from London to Stirling and suffered a freak injury when she slipped and fell on a boat on a British Swimming camp and underwent knee surgery.
But she held off her old rival, Scot Hannah Miley, for the top spot.
“Last year was really difficult for me, but because of what had happened I went into the Commonwealth Games relaxed and didn’t take anything for granted, so it felt that much better when I was able to step it up when it mattered,” she says.
“It’s great to beat an opponent when you’ve been second to that swimmer for so many years. When you’re competing for Great Britain there’s obviously no rivalry there, but when you’re swimming for England and Scotland in the Commonwealth Games, and pipping her as a rival rather than a team-mate, it was nice for me but also to get the gold for England.
“It feels like a long time ago, but it has sunk in a bit. It’s really nice to look back at all the memories of the Gold Coast and finishing off with a gold medal.”
Longer-term, Willmott has plans to help nurture young swimmers and potential future gold medallists.
She said: “I want to stay involved in swimming, and I want to promote and encourage young swimmers to stay involved and compete.
“I’m in the process of setting up my own swimming clinic business, so I can go to different swimming clubs or host events where swimmers can come along and learn from me and my dad, who’s been an Olympian, because I think there’s such a lot of experience we can give.
“I’m really enthusiastic about the support I’ve had in the area, and I want to give that back, so it would be great to remain involved in the sport in some capacity, and let’s see if we can find another Olympian from Middlesbrough!”