If you’re not already familiar with the name Keri-Anne Payne, you soon will be. With interest levels building in anticipation of the London 2012 Olympics, the swimming world champion is among an elite group of British athletes on whose shoulders the gold-tinged hopes of a nation are being placed.
But even when judged against other swimming champions, Payne is extraordinary. For she is the best in the world not in the pool, but in the open water where swimmers must deal with grappling opponents, all manner of obstacles floating on the surface and everything that lurks beneath.
Payne was born in South Africa to English parents. Her swimming medals are not the result of an overnight success story – Payne started swimming at the age of four.
“It was a case of being in the water and having fun,” she explains, but swimming soon became a regular activity thanks to a desire to follow her siblings. “My older brother and sister were both swimming and got into lessons,” she says. “And for me, it was a case of sitting around and waiting for them or I could get in and have a go myself.”
This ‘have a go’ attitude is characteristic of Payne’s active nature and desire to embrace new sporting challenges: as a child she won medals in gymnastics and netball and she has tried numerous different swimming events.
Payne became a leading junior swimmer, but her efforts at this stage were focused mainly in the pool. “I did quite a lot of open water swims when I was a kid,” she says, “but pool swimming was where I saw myself and I used to swim all the championships until we left South Africa.”
Payne and her family moved to England when she was 13, by which time her life revolved around swimming. “Before we even went to look for a school my parents had already found a swimming club for me to join,” she recalls. That club was Stockport Metro and Payne quickly achieved international success: at the age of 14 she broke the world junior record for the 400m freestyle and two years later she was the European Short Course champion in the same event in her first senior international meet.
However, Payne’s determination to achieve greater success led her to change events. At first she switched to the 400m individual medley, but swimming 100m each of butterfly, backstroke, breastroke and freestyle was not enough of a challenge for her, so she decided to swim 25 times as far in the open water. Why?
“My coach decided we should just have a go and see how it went. I ended up being quite good at it. So it was a case of see how the next race goes, then see how the next race goes, and then the next one was the Olympics, so see how that one goes.”
‘That one’ went well. Payne won a silver medal in the open water 10km at the Beijing Olympics last year and went one better in last month’s World Championships to finish on top of the medal rostrum.
Not that the switch to open water racing went, well, swimmingly to begin with.
“I do enjoy open water races a lot more now than when I first started,” Payne says. “At first it was a bit scary.”
Scary is an understatement. Open water racing is notorious for the physical contact between competitors and leg pulling and other underhand tactics are not unheard of.
Then there is the matter of other distractions and dangers in the deeps. Payne was inconvenienced by having weeds stuck in her costume and face in the Olympics and in the 2007 World Championships was stung in the mouth by a jellyfish when leading the race. But she says this only makes the sport more exciting.
“I don’t want to scare people but you can swim into just about anything you can think of, particularly when you swim in the sea. I have come across all sorts of things from jellyfish to manta rays. There are a lot of things you have to deal with, but that just makes it more of a challenge,” she enthuses.
The biggest challenge on the horizon for Payne is the London Olympics and, despite it being three years away, she is starting to feel interest levels building.
“Never before have we had so many people watch a swimming World Championships as the one just gone and it’s fantastic to see that so many people are keen to watch us swim and, after we come home, see us with our medals. At the moment the public are concentrating on the Ashes and next year it will be the football World Cup. But as the Olympics gets a bit closer there will be more and more interest.”
Hopefully this public interest will not be confined to watching the professionals, but also see people follow Payne’s lead and ‘have a go’ at open water swimming. With this in mind, Payne has the following advice for WideWorldMag readers on swimming in the great outdoors.
“There are a lot of nice places to swim in Britain. There is a book called ‘Wild Swim’ by Kate Rew (founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society) and it is absolutely fantastic to look at the pictures in the book and to see the places that she has been, and the writing in it is amazing. I am just so keen to visit the places it lists and have a swim because there are a lot of places you wouldn’t have thought are in Britain. There is one place that looks like Barbados with its white beach, but it is actually in Scotland on the western isles.
The Outdoor Swimming Society website is also a good first place to go if you are interested in starting out or if you are going to visit somewhere in Britain and want to see if there is somewhere recommended for a swim.
It is good to mix locations up as it keeps it interesting and means you are not just swimming in your own little pool, in your own little lane, always at the same temperature. It is nice to have some variation.”
“If it is cold then you need a wetsuit and it is worth investing in a good pair of goggles. Your eyes will get sore if you don’t and this will spoil the experience. If it is cold a swimming cap can also help. And, obviously, a really nice big warm towel at the end of the swim.”