15 hundredths of a second were all that stood between Hannah Miley and an Olympic medal. Despite a tricky year, the girl from Inverurie is back and ready to defend her crown for the second time at next year’s Commonwealth Games.
After her disappointment in Rio, Miley has spent the past year rediscovering her love for the sport she has loved since her father taught her to swim by throwing her in a hotel pool at the age of three.
“I’ve come to accept it now and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Miley said. “I was fourth in the world, which is actually not too bad, but it was the fact that I wasn’t able to come away with a material item for my efforts.
“I had to ask myself: ‘Why do I swim? Do I swim purely for the medal, for the glory, for the fame? Or do I swim because I genuinely just love being in the water?’”
Miley laughs as she recounts the story of the day she first fell in love with the sport.
“I first got thrown in the pool when I was quite young. My dad managed to get me on my back and I don’t think it was great technique but it looked like backstroke for a couple of metres. Apparently it only took me twenty minutes to teach me how to swim.
“I just found over the years that I was better coordinated in water,” Miley tells me. “I can trip over on a flat floor, I’m very clumsy when I’m on land but I just felt like a mermaid it was so smooth and easy and I loved the feel of being in water.”
Miley’s engaging humility makes her near miss in Rio all the more of a shame, but she has used it to reassess the way she views her performance.
“I just kind of thought my focus was so much on that and my self-worth was measured on whether I got a medal or not,” Miley admits. “I felt it was quite damaging so, yeah, I did struggle a bit afterwards because I was really fighting against myself.
“One minute I thought I’ve achieved the best result I’ve ever achieved at any Olympic Games but, on the other hand, when you spoke to people about it everyone was always so disappointed or you just felt like you failed and that’s a huge kick in the gut.”
Miley talks with real emotion of hearing the disappointment in people’s voices when telling them of her result, which shines a light on the shallow concept of the medals as a whole.
“You work so hard to then suddenly have someone judge your performance as a failure is quite hard,” she said.
It seems wrong for there to be such a huge chasm in importance between third and fourth place. It is far bigger than between second and first and it can be damaging for an athlete.
“It was quite tough because it was 15 hundredths of a second which is not that much away from a medal,” Miley continued.
“I might not have got one but I’m proud that every time I’ve gone to an Olympic Games I’ve gotten better. I can’t go back and change things, it is what it is, and if I don’t accept it I’ll forever live in this world where I’ll always have a grudge and that’s not healthy.
“It’s taken over a year to realise I couldn’t have done any more – that was the best result I’ve ever produced at the games.”
Miley credits the sport that she, quite literally, fell in love with all those years ago for helping her out in her darkest moment.
“The thing that kept me moving forward was getting back in the water,” Miley told me. “I didn’t really take much of a break after Rio.
“I raced at the World Cups immediately afterwards. That was actually quite fun, I raced because I just wanted to race with some of my friends that were there. We were just there to have fun and to enjoy ourselves with no pressure of people judging my performance or the media watching whether I won medals or not.”
It is a testament to her character that she laughs while recounting how those World Cups turned out.
“I did feel there was somebody up there that didn’t like me,” she began. “I came fourth about seven times in that meet, but it forced me to realise that I genuinely had to accept it.”
For Miley now, her focus is on the upcoming Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, which adds a cyclical element to her career.
“I made my first games when I was 16 in Melbourne in 2006 so to come out for my fourth games again back to Australia it feels like it’s gone full circle which is quite nice.”
The preparation for those games didn’t go as planned for Miley as she contracted pneumonia in the run up and had to miss weeks of her training regime in one of the lowest moments of her career.
But being part of the showpiece event was still what made her realise that she wanted to pursue a career in swimming.
“In Melbourne that was when I was bitten by the bug. The whole hype, the fact it was televised and that you were in a village and you got to see other athletes from other sports – I loved it, I absolutely loved it!
“Being at the games was my deciding point that I really want to focus on this [swimming] and try and make the most out of it – and I’ve never really looked back.”
This time around is extra special for Miley as she aims to defend her 400m individual medley title for the second time – a feat never before achieved in her discipline.
Miley retained her crown in 2014 in what was a home games for a girl raised in Inverurie, and she cites swimming in front of the raucous Glasgow crowd as her best memory of her time in the pool.
“I’ll never forget the noise of the crowd swimming down the last fifty metres,” she said. “I could hear it whilst I was swimming, that was just incredible, that really was a hugely special moment for me.
“It was so good – I’ve been to London and heard what the home crowd was like for that but there was just something more in the Glasgow one. There wasn’t as many people but the noise they made just hit through your chest, you felt it through your whole body. It was so cool, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Far from her dark days a year ago, Miley seems ready and determined to defend her title once more. It won’t erase her disappointment of missing out on an Olympic medal, but her journey back from that disappointment seems to have won her the biggest prize of all – self acceptance.
“I can genuinely say I am happy, I feel a lot happier than I did, say, this time last year. There’s no straightforward way of doing it, I’ve just had to give myself time to realise that it is okay,” she admitted as our interview came to a close.
“Nobody died so, yeah, there’s a lot worse things that can happen. I did the best performance I possibly could.”
Featured image credit: Arena Sports Management