Record-breaking Sophie facing a mental battle to clear path towards Rio challenge

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Uneasy lies the crown on the head of British swimming’s new breaststroke superstar.

Sophie Taylor broke a five-year-old national record for the 100m breaststroke in winning a silver medal at the world junior championships in Dubai last month.

Swimmer Sophie Taylor, at the John Charles Aquatic Centre, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Swimmer Sophie Taylor, at the John Charles Aquatic Centre, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

That was one of three medals the 17-year-old claimed at her final international age group event in what was a breakthrough meet for the Harrogate girl.

Yet such accolades represent uncharted territory for the Leeds Grammar School pupil who, despite having a bright future in front of her, is wary of the pitfalls that lay ahead.

As powerful as she is proving to be in the water, out of it she admits to fighting a constant battle against her own low 
self-esteem.

Taylor could potentially over the next few years provide a riposte to the argument that British swimming is on the decline, but try telling her that.

Shy and unassuming, she is working as hard with her coach Richard Denigan on the mental side of sport as she is on her technique.

“I’m quite weak mentally compared to every other swimmer and me and Rich are working on that together,” said Taylor, the leading light at the City of Leeds Swimming Club.

“It helped me get through Dubai so hopefully that work is paying off.

“I just have low self-esteem and I believe everything I do is down to luck. If I swim well I think to myself, ‘that was lucky’.

“I’m still getting used to being at the top, and still adjusting to it.”

British swimming has endured a chastening 18 months after below-par performances at the Olympics and the world championships in Barcelona.

An inability to rise to the occasion has been identified as a key reason for those disappointing performances, and if Taylor wants to fulfil her ambition of swimming at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year and the Rio Olympics in 2016, she knows that working to combat those potential stumbling blocks must be done now.

Taylor said: “A lot of the swimmers at London 2012 didn’t perform well because they felt the pressure got to them, and I’m not very good under pressure myself, and that’s something I’ve got to work on in the future.

“I’ve still got a long way to go and a lot of hard work to come.

“I’m doing well for now, but this is swimming, where anything can happen.”

Despite her own insecurities, Taylor proved in the Middle East in August that she does indeed have the fortitude to perform when it matters most.

The junior worlds were the biggest meet of her career to date, and as well as finishing second behind world record holder and Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyte in the 100m breaststroke, she also won a bronze medal in the 50m breaststroke and another silver in the 4x100m medley relay.

Goodness knows what heights she can scale when she starts to finally believe in herself.

“I didn’t really know I’d broken the record until I finished my race and was told,” said Taylor, whose time of 1.07:36 eclipsed the British record set five years ago.

“It was a good feeling, really unexpected, and I felt really proud of myself.

“Winning silver was more important and the whole race gives me great confidence. I feel as though I’m pushing Ruta all the way.

“I’ve knocked off a massive amount of time in the last few months, I just seem to be getting closer and closer to her.

“But she’s world and Olympic champion so I’ve still got a long way to go to catch her.

“At the start of the year I didn’t even know about the world juniors and even when I found out about them, I didn’t think I had a chance of going.

“But as I progressed through the year it looked more and more possible, and when I found out in June that I was going, I finally thought ‘this is what I’ve been training for’ and just went for it.

“So it was nice that all the training and all the early mornings paid off.”

Taylor’s victory was also vindication for her family, especially grandmother Janet who drives Sophie to nine sessions a week at the John Charles Aquatics Centre.

City of Leeds is Taylor’s fourth club since taking up swimming aged 10. She started at Sheffield, moved to Doncaster Dartes and then her home club at Harrogate, before transferring to Leeds because the coaching there suited her better.

Her next aim is to try to quailfy for next summer’s Commonwealth Games, but already she appreciates there is plenty of talent, even younger than her, snapping at her heels.

She said: “I’m feeling pressure as a 17-year-old from 15 and 16-year-olds who are a lot faster than current senior swimmers were at that age. I’ve just got to keep training hard and hopefully I’ll qualify for the Commonwealth Games next year. It’s realistic, if I keep progressing.”