At the age of 16, Conor Ferguson is a junior swimmer chasing Olympic qualification in the 100m backstroke. He came within an agonising 0.05 seconds of the qualifying time in setting an Irish record two weeks ago and aims to better that mark at the European Championships next week.
The European Aquatics Championships got underway last week in the London 2012 Olympic venue, with the synchronised swimming and diving taking the limelight. Diver Oliver Dingley has secured two top-ten finishes from the springboard but next week it’s the turn of the swimmers. An Irish team of 12 will travel over, including Ferguson, who will compete in the 100m backstroke heats on Monday.
Q: So what’s the plan for next week?
The 100m backstroke is the only event I’m going to do in London because I’ve got my GCSEs coming up. I’ve never swam in the place before but I’ve got a lot of friends who have done it from schools’ galas and lifesaving championships.
I’ve never been in an Olympic pool so I think it’ll be pretty cool!
Q: To be in contention for Olympic qualification at 16 years old, you must’ve started very young?
I started swimming when I was eight and the first time I left the country was two years later to go to a Cardiff meet. I think I entered every event — about eight — and I won all of them.
I won swimmer of the meet and I beat all these really proper guys, probably Olympians, who were competing for it. I was only ten, so that was quite funny. I didn’t really take it too seriously, though, until I was about 12ish.
Q: Given the number of teenagers who have won Olympic medals, is there some advantage for younger swimmers?
I think you need experience. You need to build up foundations and that’s why there are competitions like the European Youth Olympics, Junior Commonwealths, and World Junior Championships, which give people like me an experience of competing at an international level.
That’ll really tell you if you want to make it big. Like when I went to the Europeans, I’m not very tall and I saw these humongous guys and even the girls were over six foot, and they were only 14 — a year younger than me at the time. I thought, ‘oh no, I can’t do this’, but I came back from that and spoke to a psychologist about it.
But if I didn’t experience that, I’d probably be going this summer thinking the same thing and that can affect how you swim.
Q: When did the Rio Olympics appear on your radar, because it almost seems like you’re four years ahead of schedule?
From a young age I’ve always thought about 2016. You know when you’re a young kid and you have that dream that’s nearly an unrealistic goal. Well, I’ve never put it out of my head completely. I’ve always thought, ‘This could happen. It’s a long shot, it most likely won’t happen, but if it does, it’s a bonus.’
It was never the goal at the start of the year. When I went to the Dave McCullagh meet at the start of March, I nearly got the qualifying time — I was 0.29 off — and I broke 55 seconds for the first time. I was on the 54s and I thought, ‘flip me!’ It only became realistic then.
Q: You went as close as five hundredths of a second away from the Olympic ‘A’ standard recently, so it must be disappointing to come up short but encouraging to be getting closer?
Absolutely. Especially after that race when I was 0.05 out, for five minutes I was annoyed that I didn’t get the time. But when you calm down and think about it more… It’s hard to explain how I felt… It’s like mixed emotions because I know I have the potential to do it and that’s what gives me more confidence.
Q: In that moment when you finish and look up at the scoreboard, how do you process coming so close while also realising that you’ve set a national record?
It’s definitely hard to explain. I messed up my finish so as soon as I finished, I knew that was poor. And when I saw the time, I was just instantly really, really annoyed. It wasn’t to do with the time; it was that I just missed it. I got so close and I didn’t get it. It was hard to deal with at that time but it’s done and I can’t do anything about it.
Q: When you’re talking about fraction-of-a-second improvements, at least you have a specific part of the race to focus on…
I was actually chatting to my friend about this and it’s not even like I need to change anything. Because I was so close, it’s not like I need to go harder. My splits were perfect. That 0.05 could’ve come from anywhere.
It could be from a type of streamline off the wall, that finish… It’s just all about fine-tuning when you’re trying to get those milliseconds.
Q: When you’re swimming in a race, do you have a good sense of your time?
I try to stay as clear-minded as possible, but I know if I’m going fast. You can just tell. You can even judge if you’re swimming beside someone — if you’re miles ahead of them or overtaking someone, you know that you’re going fast. Sometimes, like in the relay on the last day of the Irish Championships, it was hard to judge because I’d no-one beside me, whereas I’d Shane Ryan, who has already qualified for the Olympics, beside me in the final of the 100 backstroke. I passed him and thought, ‘If I’m passing Shane, I must be doing well!’
Q: What’s your training set-up?
I live in Jordanstown and I train in my club programme. I do my training in the Belfast Royal Academy pool, because I got to school there.
I train there in the morning, go to school, and then train there again. I do my gym-work within walking distance from the school, so it’s pretty handy. There are about three camps a year I attend in Dublin too and in the last year I went to Limerick at Halloween, with 2020 potential squad guys, and then we went with the 2016 potential squad guys to Tenerife.
Q: And how do you balance all that with exams?
I do nine GCSEs where a lot of the guys in my year would do 10. So rather than do a 10th subject, the school have given me a study period, because they know I don’t have the time that a normal person would have.
They’ve been really helpful with that. It is hard to balance it, especially if I’ve a competition right before exams. Even this European Seniors is a prime example. You have to study throughout the year; you can’t afford to cram before the exams. I just don’t have that time.
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