She may not look terribly tough, with her model figure and doe eyes, but don’t be fooled, Keri-Anne Payne is the very embodiment of sporting resilience. She’s the world 10km open-water champion and won silver in Beijing. Now she’s hot favourite to win gold when she dives into the Serpentine this summer.
“The thing about open-water swimming is that you’re never quite sure what’s in there,” she says. “When I competed off Jinshan City Beach in China there were dead dogs in the water. And in a race in Australia, it was full of jellyfish.” To overcome these “Jaws moments”, as she calls them, you have to be quite hard.
Payne, 24, was born in Johannesburg to British parents and started swimming at an early age. Her big break came when Bill Sweetenham, GB national performance director, spotted her talent at a local training camp. When the family relocated to Manchester, he suggested she join the group of GB swimmers training at Stockport Metro Intensive Training Centre, led by Sean Kelly.
In her first big race, in 2002, she broke the British junior 800m freestyle record, but after she failed to win a medal in the Commonwealth Games she lost motivation. That’s when Kelly put her up for open-water swimming, as a new challenge. Payne hated it, but started to show a real talent for it, so kept going.
“Once I realised that I might be good at this, I began to enjoy it more,” she said. Less than two years later, she won silver in Beijing. Now, she has the chance to go one better. “I’m trying to stay calm,” she says. “I’ve trained hard and I know I’m ready.”
And there’ll be no dead dogs this time. “No Jaws moments,” she agrees. “That will be nice.”
Watch Keri-Anne in the women’s 10km marathon on Thursday 9 August at 12 noon on BBC1 and BBC Olympics 9