Aimee continues Olympic tradition

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The suitcase of memorabilia that Stuart Willmott recovered from the loft last month was covered in dust, the contents all but disintegrated by the passage of time.

It had, after all, been nearly three decades since he had walked out into the white-hot heat of Los Angeles and dived into the pool to contest the Olympic 400m individual medley.

The reason for this latest journey down memory lane was more out of family pride than personal reflection.

For Stuart’s daughter Aimee had just continued the Willmott tradition of producing Olympians by qualifying for the London Games this summer.

Her discipline? The 400m individual medley, of course.

And the date of this summer’s Olympic race? July 28, exactly 28 years to the day since Stuart finished 15th in Los Angeles.

“Her goal is to do better than what I achieved,” says Stuart, who like all proud parents, puts his children’s success over his own.

“But, realistically, if she can get to a final, in her first Olympics, then that would be some achievement.

“If she gets a medal then I think I’ll faint!

“When she came back from the trials, I got the suitcase down from the loft with all my LA memories in there. Most of the stuff was too old to be recognisable.

“But the funniest thing is the symmetry. Twenty-eight years ago I swam on July 28 and she’ll swim on July 28.”

So in this unique situation, what advice can Stuart pass on to Aimee that not many other British athletes, or the swimmers she will be up against, would be party to.

“My starkest memory is walking out into the pool for a heat against an American swimmer, and all you can hear is 10,000 fans chanting ‘USA USA’,” he recalls.

“It works for the home swimmer and if you let it, it can work against you as the away swimmer, unless you can switch it off.

“Fortunately, Aimee will have that in her corner this year.”

Anything her father can pass on is wisdom that Aimee greatly receives.

She says: “His advice is not to worry about the swimming and just use the crowd to my advantage. In 1984, the crowd was amazing, shouting their support for the US swimmers. He’s told me to use that energy.”

The relationship between the two is not one of a father being a strict taskmaster to a frightened young girl who lives for nothing other than pleasing her coach.

Stuart taught both his daughters how to swim when they were old enough to walk, but he has not had direct access to Aimee as a coach since she was 11, when she was taken under the guidance of renowned swimming tutor Les Green.

Stuart says: “I give her advice if she asks for it. She calls them recommendations, but whatever she asks for or calls it, I’m happy to give it. I don’t pressure her at all. We don’t say you must do this or that. The key is she’s got to want to do it, and Aimee does.”

Green had Aimee under his wing until 2008 when as a 60-year-old he felt he could no longer take this burgeoning talent any further.

In the next three years, Aimee won European Junior Championship medals and reached the finals of the 400IM and 200IM at the Commonwealth Games.

But 2011 was a sobering year. Her coach left and she missed out on a place in the British team for the world championships because the trials clashed with her A-level exams.

“It was a rubbish month,” she says. “But I used it as a motivation to succeed this year.”

The Amateur Swimming Association helped find her a coach closer to her own age, Lisa Bates, who continues to work with Aimee at the Neptune Centre in Middlesbrough.

With her talents and the future she has ahead of her, Aimee could easily opt to move to Loughborough or any of the other intense performance centres where the British swimmers are based. But she plans to continue her education at the University of Teesside after London 2012, with swimming taking precedence.

Rio in 2016 might be when the full potential of Aimee is realised, but there can be no down-playing her achievement in pushing world champion Hannah Miley all the way in the 400IM trial last month. “It was just the last turn where she edged away. That’s the closest I’ve been to her, though,” said Aimee, who was unable to qualify for the 200IM.

“It was important for me to get everything right and deliver on the big day in the 400IM. It’s great for the hard work to pay off.”

Stuart added: “When your child starts swimming they all say they want to swim at the Olympics one day and you take it with a pinch of salt. To have it realised is amazing. The advantage for Aimee has been seeing me, and thinking ‘if my old man can do it, then why can’t I?’.”