Britain’s 200m breaststroke battle has been a roller-coaster of a ride for all contenders. It was no different today in Sheffield at British Championships as the two who raced at Rio in the Olympics last year found themselves locked out of world titles in Budapest this July and the nightmare ended for Ross Murdoch.
Sunshine rarely makes it past the skylights and roof at Ponds Forge but the heat within often confirms the burning orb must be out there somewhere beyond the leaden layers. From the day 4 pressure cooker of the latest domestic all-or-nothing, Murdoch, coached by Ben Higson at the University of Stirling, emerged the winner in 2:09.15, No10 in the world so far this year.
Commonwealth champion in 2014 and European champion in 2016, Murdoch had never been national champion – until today – and has never represented Britain in global long-course waters. His debut British long-course title comes a year after he missed the cut for the Olympic Games on 2:09.16 in April and claimed the European title on 2:08.33 in May without a hope of muscling in on the Rio tickets already taken.
Andrew Willis, of Bath University, followed up a place in the London 2012 final in which Brit teammate Michael Jamieson claimed silver with a frustrating fourth place in Rio last year, Craig Benson the other man who confined his Stirling training partner Murdoch to the 100m race in Rio.
Willis and Benson felt today the weight of Murdoch’s mare of last year as James Wilby, of Loughborough, snatched silver in 2:10.01, an effort that was also inside consideration time for the Battle of Budapest. Willis: 2:10.52, a snap of the Budaopest consideration time; Benson, 2:10.56. Both out.
Adam Peaty, the national champion in 2015 who opted out of the four-lap this time round, said after the Rio 2016 Olympic finals that he’d like to give the 200m a crack and thought a 2:07 would struggle to make the medals, let along win the title in a blanket finish. His coach Mel Marshall explained to SwimVortex why there will be no 200m this year, Peaty’s focus sticking with the 50 and 100m as he approaches the defence (further attack as he calls it) of the world titles in Budapest. Murdoch paid plaudits to Peaty today, saying:
“I think not only has he redefined breaststroke, I think he has redefined swimming again where people are starting to change their ideas and be like you know what, why do we think this is all that is possible?”
Even without Peaty in the 200m, the pressure has, however, appeared to take the edge off the pace over 200m in Britain in the past two seasons.
Murdoch, 23, claimed a home Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth crown ahead of Olympic silver medallist and fellow Scot Jamieson in his breakthrough season with a blistering 2:07.30 to the roar of a home crowd. The moment takes us back to a the beginning of the end for Jamieson, who fell into depression and difficulty beyond silver that day in Glasgow.
That 2.07.30 achieved by using Jamieson as hare down the last lap remains Murdoch’s best, whose silver in 2:07.77 at the 2014 European Championships behind Marco Koch, of Germany, was followed by setback. In nationals in 2015, he clocked 2:08.90 only to find himself locked off the world-titles team by Adam Peaty and Willis. History repeated itself for Olympic year, his campaign in Brazil confined to the 100m a year as understudy to Peaty once more.
Speaking to SwimVortex’s Liz Byrnes, Murdoch’s happiness was tempered by the clock (cut time and the pace the best in the world are down to) and the fact that he will not know until the team announcement next Tuesday (or shortly before it, the swimmers the first to know beyond the selectors) whether he has made the cut. The instant ticket to Budapest would have taken a 2:07.73. The likelihood is that Murdoch will make it.
He said: “I’d like to say that was job done. With two consideration times for world championships and Commonwealth Games for Scotland I would like to say that would be me on team for the summer so that is a big tick in the box, job done for me. I knew I wasn’t in the shape to do personal best times but I knew if I swam the race my way and got out in front then I would be in control of the race.”
“That is kind of the way it went tonight and it managed to pay off in my favour. I was aware Craig is in great shape and Willis is in great shape having spent three weeks in Mexico at altitude with them, I know these boys are always in great nick. I was really nervous for tonight actually, just because I knew the history of these guys and how close these races are so I am just delighted to have got my hand on the wall. I would have taken second again – I just really wanted to swim this 200 in the summer.”
It was Willis’s turn to be left out today. He said: “It was a bit crap. I didn’t feel myself – that is what I can put it down to. I have trained so hard this year, I thought I did really well mentally coming back, my training, big winter, swam really well at short-course. I just think putting everything into this long-course season has hit me a little bit. I was just very nervous, I don’t know what it.
“It’s tough. Seven years of making teams, that was going to happen 100% – I am not naïve in that way but just disappointed at my own performance, just didn’t feel like me. I just felt really sluggish coming back.”
Coping With Disappointment On A Conveyor Belt That Never Waits For No Man
Asked what the past year, given that his Rio dreams were dashed, had been like, Murdoch said:
“Definitely difficult for me. I did win Europeans in the middle of the year but I think I did that out of pure anger at myself from the trials. I was so disappointed and so angry with myself at the trials because I had put in so much work and it just felt like it was all for naught. I think that ultimately that trials swim ruined the rest of the season – I just couldn’t really shake that off my back, I felt like it held me back for the rest of the year.”
The road back had not been an easy one. Said Murdoch who missed the final of the 100m a year after racing to bronze at world titles: “It was pretty tough for me after that and I had to take quite a bit of time off after Rio just because I ended up not swimming well in the event I qualified in. They big up the Olympics to be this massive thing when you are little when it’s like your absolute dream to be there and you get there and you underperform – it’s such an underwhelming venue when it is like that. You just look at the scoreboard with complete disappointment and you’re like I can’t believe I put in four years worth of graft and that’s all you’ve got to show for it, that number there. Everything else in the middle up to that point felt like it didn’t even matter.
“So when you get to there – I was absolutely broken and my body paid for it, nine days after the Olympics were (spent) just eating McDonalds. There was a free McDonalds there and after the Olympics I kind of got to a point where I was like two weeks ago you were in the absolute shape of your life and look at the state of you. You don’t even want to go out and do anything, you just want to sit in and eat yourself into a coma. I needed the seven weeks off after the Olympics and I definitely think that is what helped me get on here today.”
And while all of that was happening, the world was moving on, Peaty’s 57.13 stunner for Olympic gold the performane in the fast pool last year, and Ippei watanabe, of Japan, having started this year with the first sub-2:07 for the world record over 200m. Murdoch is very much aware of the conveyor belt that never stops, telling Liz Byrnes: “I saw a tweet the other day from Bruno Fratus, the Brazilian freestyler. He tweeted Adam and was like ‘thank you for redefining fast for everybody.’
Peaty the Pioneer Redefining Swimming Speed
Murdoch’s take: “Swimming got quite stale for a while where there was no world records and things like that, especially in the men’s events – the women’s events have always been moving forward since the suit era. But it got quite stale for a while in the men’s but I think having Adam around – who would have thought that someone would have gone 57.1 in the summer of 2016? Never in a million years would you have thought that would happen but Adam went out there and made it happen, he just made that event his own.”
“I think not only has he redefined breaststroke, I think he has redefined swimming again where people are starting to change their ideas and be like you know what, why do we think this is all that is possible? Why don’t we broaden our horizons and really start to move the sport on? And I think it is definitely down to having people like Adam around.”
The space to chase in the 200m ranks for 2017 (two per nation allowed at worlds):
Men 200M Breaststroke
JPN , 20
JPN , 25
SWE , 23
RUS , 20
RUS , 21
RUS , 22
CHN , 18
RUS , 22
GBR , 23
RUS , 20