meets...Keri-Anne Payne

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 Author: Andrew Allen
Open water swimming; the only sport where the threat of red and yellow cards for violent conduct exist in tandem with the danger of wayward choppy waves, pesky seaweed, poisonous jelly fish stings and gut-wrenching fatigue. It doesn’t sound that appealing does it?
Alas, for Great Britain’s Keri-Anne Payne it is a way of life and one at which she excels. The 22-year-old shot to prominence two years ago when she won the silver medal in the 10km event at the 2008 Olympic Games and has since ensconced herself at the top of her event by winning the World Championships in Rome last year.

Tipped for further success when the Games come to London in 2012, the lithe and lively swim sensation talked to about swimming in Hyde Park’s Serpentine River, her memories of Beijing and her desire to get the masses into the pool through the Schweppes Abbey Well ‘Schwim Free’ campaign.

You shot to prominence off the back of your silver in the 10km open water race in Beijing; how did you get into such an epic event?
I’ve been swimming all my life in the pool and was always doing middle distance freestyle races; moving to the open water event was just a natural progression. When Cassie Patten moved from Plymouth to Manchester to train with us she was already doing open water [races] so my coach just said give it a go and see how you get on.
It sounds like you took to it like a fish to water...
[Cue groans] Yeah I suppose...
It looks like an aggressive as well as incredibly physical event. Is this something which forms part of the attraction for you?
It’s all just part and parcel of the race really. I was really attracted to the fact that at every race you face different conditions, whether it be the weather, currents in the water, sea life. Anything and everything can change even if you’re racing the same course from one day to the next. Thos different challenges are what attracted me to the sport.
Are their competitors on the circuit with notorious reputations for unsporting behaviour in the water?
Yes, there are certainly people who you know who to stick with and people who you try and stay out of the way of.
Tactically, do you go into a race studying the strengths and weaknesses of opponents or is it about concentrating on your own race and hoping for the best?
You know roughly how everybody swims their races, things don’t change that much. For me it’s all about focusing on what I’m doing.
I read you were stung in the mouth by a jellyfish while in the lead at the World Champs in Melbourne a couple of years ago? That sounds horrific...
It was. It’s just something you have to deal with, you can’t stop. I’ve always been the type of person that if you start something you have to carry on and try and finish it. The occasional jelly fish won’t stop me. I was fine after a couple of days.
Looking back at Beijing what are your residing memories of the Games as a whole?
The whole experience was unforgettable; walking through the Olympic Village and seeing all the different stars walking around was great, the accommodation was amazing, the volunteers were extraordinary. Everything was so professional, it was all done brilliantly. I actually don’t remember too much of my own race, I’m not really sure why...but I loved the whole experience.
Was there any time you felt star struck mingling with the famous faces in the Village?
You can definitely get star struck but I think you have to try not to concentrate too much on that side of things at all. At the end of the day I was there to swim so I had to keep the concentration on myself. In terms of swimmers I’d raced most of them many times before so it wasn’t something to get overwhelmed by, it was just a bigger competition.
There are always lots of stories of Olympic Village shenanigans; were there weird or unusual things you saw in Beijing?
Not at all. It wasn’t like that really, especially not on Team GB’s camp anyway. A few times once we had finished swimming and had a few hours to ourselves we walked about and we stayed out a bit later. We mostly found ourselves heading towards the McDonalds rather than the salad bar. That was about as crazy as we got!
You won the World Champs last year in Rome and your profile has once again been thrust into the limelight, do you enjoy the added attention and pressure?
There’s not too much added attention. There’s a bit more pressure on me again now after winning that gold but I’m very much an athlete who after I’ve finished looks at how to improve. Unfortunately, this year didn’t go as well as I had hoped but I’ve changed a lot of things in training which is good, as this is the time to do it as there is still two years to go until the London Olympics.
For me it was just a case of trying out new things. I know now what works for me so next year should be an exciting year again.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to use your athletic talent to inspire more people into swimming?
When I finish swimming my aim is to hopefully get as many people swimming as possible, especially in open water. My event has grown massively in the last couple of years with the British Gas Great Swim Series and the Schweppes Abbey Well ‘Schwim Free’ campaign. It’s brilliant that big companies are promoting initiatives helping people get in the water. The numbers taking part show how important people think swimming is and it is now the biggest participation sport in the country. It’s key that we get the masses fit and make sure that the London Olympics has a legacy to be proud of; we don’t want everybody going back to being couch potatoes after all the good work.
Obviously the London 2012 Games are already on the horizon, are you looking forward to taking a dip in the Serpentine?
Sure. I mean we don’t know what the course is at the moment but generally they aren’t too different. I’ve been in there already a few times and it’s a nice temperature and it’s nice and clean as well. I’m looking forward to it.
Is the pressure of performing in front of a home crowd inspiring or intimidating and are you relishing the added pressure of having a reputation to defend?
I’m definitely excited to have that home crowd for once and to have people cheering for us. Every time a Briton races I’m sure the support will be crazy. Usually it’s the Australians and Americans who benefit as I’m always racing in their competitions.
Have you any long-term plans? Obviously you’re only 22-years-old, but have you ambitions outside of the pool?
I’m actually doing a journalism course at the moment, just freelance sports journalist writing and I’ve done some stuff for the BBC at the European Championships recently. I’d love to get into the media side of things and make sure that more people get interested in swimming.