A new British record…

Making Waves

17th July 2015

Jill Glenn meets the fastest 13-year-old swimmer in Britain, and the mother who cheers him on every metre of the way.

Oliver Taverner, now 14, is not your average teenager. I meet him and his mother, Lisa, at 10.30 in the morning during the first week of his school holidays. This is an hour at which most adolescents are still huddling under the sheets and protesting at the onset of the day… Ollie has already cycled to the local pool, completed his morning schedule (in which he has swum 3,000m) and cycled home. He’s happy to sit and chat ­– shyly until he gets into his stride – but it’s not long before he’s marauding round the kitchen hunting for food. Healthy food. “He knows how to eat clean,” says his mother, estimating that he consumes around 5,000 calories a day. I can’t begin to imagine how much energy he’s expended already this morning, and he has an evening session (another 4,000m, including 1.5km warm up and a series of incomprehensible variants such as ‘8x50 No.1 on 80’) yet to come. By the time the week is over, he will have swum 30,500 metres, and still be smiling.

Ollie started swimming lessons as a small child, and took to breaststroke immediately. It’s still his favourite. His feet were always big (his words, not mine) “and turned out nicely for this”. It didn’t help him with freestyle though and at the age of seven he was struggling to point his toes properly, and feeling frustrated. His swimming teacher suggested that he might try out for Bushey Swimming Club, where he’d have the opportunity to use fins. He applied, and went, nervously, for his trial, relaxing only when he overheard one of the coaches saying to another “Have you seen the breaststroke of this seven year old? – It’s amazing.”

It wasn’t the last of the compliments, nor the last of the trials: Ollie’s swimming has been tested time and time again. He joined Bushey and progressed rapidly up through the squads, breaking the club records in backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle (evidently using fins solved the problem) and individual medley. By the time he’d reached the age of nine, the minimum age for competition, he had achieved seven county qualifying times. With little real idea of how the event would work, he went along, swam his best – all his coaches have noted his commitment – and was astonished to come out second overall in his age group, with qualifying times for the regionals in 200m breast and backstroke, and the right to compete in the 100m for both.

No-one from the Bushey club had ever achieved a place at the regional meet. Ollie and his mother, then a newly qualified swimming coach herself – “I was spending so long at the pool with Ollie, I thought I might as well do something useful with my time,” she says – found themselves on a much bigger stage.

It was another pivotal point in Ollie’s career. There he and Lisa met Terry Davies, father and former coach of Olympic and Commonwealth swimmer Sharron Davies. Terry was then chief coach at Watford Swimming Club, and he took Lisa and Ollie under his wing. Ollie came home with a bronze in both the breaststroke events, and later that year, at the age of ten, joined Watford to train with Terry. It was a strong partnership; by the time the following year’s regionals came round, Ollie had secured qualifying times in 100 and 200m breast, 100 and 200m back, 100 and 200m free and 200m individual medley. He came away with two silvers.

“Terry’s driven Ollie forwards from the very first days,” Lisa says, and the list of achievements and constantly improving personal bests is impressive, culminating in qualification for the Nationals at Sheffield in July 2013. “The most exciting week of my life,” says Ollie, though my guess is he can now say that about other weeks, too. This was to be Terry’s last Nationals, and Ollie was desperate to get a medal for him, but entering his two events low in the ranking meant huge effort from both trainer and swimmer.

“My first event was 200m breaststroke where I entered as sixth fastest in the country. In the heats I had a really good swim and got into the final in fourth place. My stomach was churning as I waited and I used breathing techniques to keep calm. I raced the race of my life and came third (second of the UK entries) meaning I got my silver medal, just .45 of a sec behind gold position.” Ollie had managed to knock a massive nine seconds off his initial entry time. Three days later he did it all over again in the 100m breaststroke, entering the heats in seventh position and ultimately taking bronze in the final. “I just couldn’t catch the boy in front for silver, finishing just 0.17 secs behind him.”

Ollie and Lisa talk times and distances and records with ease and passion. My notebook is littered with figures and comments like “I needed 1,10,84 but I made 1,10,92” and “I did 31,9 out and 1,07,9 overall.” It’s all a bit beyond me, if I’m honest, but what shines through is how much he loves it, and how much he wants the future that beckons. He has his sights on the European Youth Swimming Championships in 2017, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

It was Terry Davies who, last year, suggested that Lisa and husband Andy should consider sending Ollie to Mount Kelly (formerly Kelly College) in Tavistock, Devon. Mount Kelly runs a prestigious swim school program, which Terry himself had been involved in establishing many years ago. It would be, he urged, absolutely the right step.

The Taverners went down to Devon for a day, looked round the school and the facilities, and took to it all. “I didn’t want to like it,” Lisa admits. “I was determined that nothing was going to get me to send my son away…”

…but they discovered that it’s everything Ollie – and they – could wish for. There’s a carefully structured day that integrates academic work and the training timetable. All the boarding, dining, training and school facilities are no more than 400m away from each other: less time wasted on getting from a] to b]; more time training, resting, studying or chilling out with mates – an experience that most dedicated teenage sportspeople generally have to forego. For performance swimmers at Mount Kelly there’s world class coaching with individual goal setting; there’s testing and monitoring, biomechanical analysis and sports science support, plus personal mentoring and evaluation along with tutoring and lifestyle coaching to help a youngster cope with the demands – and consequences – of achieving their potential.

For Ollie, the idea of leaving home at the age of 13 – for a school four hours drive away – seemed impossible. Even the thought of a trial stay was daunting. “I’d never slept away from home with people I didn’t know,” he tells me, but he braved it. His mother laughs, “And we didn’t hear from him for the entire three days…”

Ollie clearly loved it – early morning cross country running, maths challenges, swim sessions… the lot. “Even though it was only a few days I really felt like I’d grown up a bit. I was really expecting to miss home badly but I didn’t even think of it.”
When his parents came to collect him, his enthusiasm for the experience was evident. It was on the way home from that trial trip that the Taverners made a decision that was to change Ollie’s life, and has already changed his swimming, with improvements to his personal bests and a fantastic British record-breaking achievement in the 100m breaststroke earlier this year. “We said ‘if you want to go to Mount Kelly, we’ll make it happen,’” recalls Lisa, “and he said he wanted to, so…”.

It’s a big ask. Ollie has a scholarship to the swim program, but the financial obligations in relation to the boarding fees and all the other associated costs are huge. “It’s like buying a small car every term,” Lisa says. She smiles, but admits that she and her husband, Andy, both police officers, are relying on savings and sponsorship to support Ollie’s time at Mount Kelly. They have a younger son, too, Charlie, who also swims.

The sacrifice, and the wrench of letting Ollie go, have, so far, been worth it. He has settled well (“again, we didn’t hear from him for weeks,” says Lisa, and Ollie has the grace to blush slightly), formed great relationships with his new coaches and shot up the rankings. He’s been to his first international meet, in Geneva; and has been ranked first in the UK for the 14 and under age category across 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke over both short and long course (and in the top ten for backstroke and 200 individual medley, and the top 25 for free). He’s back at the Nationals in Sheffield this August, with different pressures: this year, he’s the one to beat.

He tells me about a typical day at school, cheekily picking one that begins with 4.30am start, just to see the shock on my face. After a two hour swim session, finishing at 7am in time for breakfast, there are morning lessons, punctuated by a break in which he’s responsible for unpacking his swim bag and rinsing out his ‘skins’. After lunch more lessons segue into afternoon training – an hour and a half – followed by prep, registration and bed. It’s extremely structured and focused, with around ten and a half hours swimming in the course of the average week, plus four and a half hours of land training.

In his downtime he knocks a football around with friends or – in true teenage fashion – lies on his bed listening to music on his phone.

“Is it hard,” I ask, “getting up at the crack of dawn to go training?” “Not really,” he says. “I love training…” and his face breaks out into that bright, lovely smile that I’d like to bottle and take home with me.


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