Keri-Anne Payne (British swimmer)
Prepare to see a lot more of 24-year-old Stockport swimmer Keri-Anne Payne, for she’s among Britain’s hottest favourites to win gold this summer.
Storming to a surprise silver medal in the gruelling 10km open water swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Payne became the first to book her place in the Olympic team after winning the world championships in Shanghai last summer.
Her reward will be to plunge head first into the Serpentine for the open water event on 9 August. Not the most glamorous of settings, but Payne has known worse.
“I’ve swum in rivers in China that had dead animals in,” she laughs. “And in the sea where I had to plough through thousands of jellyfish, which stung me non-stop. But I’ve also swum in the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty, which was amazing.”
Payne, who was born to British parents in Johannesburg and moved to Britain when she was 13, is also hoping to compete in the 400m individual medley, and the 800m freestyle, alongside best friend Rebecca Adlington. So how did she discover open water swimming?
“To be honest, it found me,” she replies. “My coach asked me to give it a go to see if I enjoyed it. I really didn’t enjoy the first one. But he thought it went well and kept persuading me to do ‘just one more’ and eventually I found myself at the trials.”
She won’t even let her September wedding to fellow Stockport swimmer and Olympic team hopeful David Carry interrupt her training.
“With everything that’s going on for the Olympics, I’m not even stressed about the wedding. In fact, the frilly bits like sorting the invitations will help actually take my head out of the swimming preparations, so I’m looking forward to it.” Fingers crossed it’s a double golden summer then.
MC Mary Kom (Indian boxer)
At 28, she’s a five-time amateur world champion, fighting now in the flyweight (up to 51 kilos) class. Women’s boxing is a new discipline for London. I wanted to go out to see her train, but she comes from Manipur, a contested area of India right on the border with Burma that’s almost impossible to visit.
Women’s boxing follows the same format as the men’s competition, but they are having a tussle about what to wear. The women are being told that they need to wear skirts rather than shorts, and they’re all saying “how dare you”. But we may not see them in the billowing shorts we see on the men.
Haider Rashid (Iraqi rower)
He’s never going to be medal quality, but if he makes it to the London Olympics Iraq’s leading rower will be a huge story back home in Baghdad. I don’t think an Iraqi has ever qualified in their own right, they’re usually given wild cards — he had one for Beijing, where he finished last in the double sculls.
But having won bronze in the single sculls at the 2010 Asian Games, Haider, 28, is desperate to compete in London. He had a German coach up until a month ago. I then got a phone call from a New Zealander I know, Chris Nilsson, who coached Cambridge for a while and had been asked to coach Haider.
After being asked, “Come to Baghdad”, he was then told not to come as, “It’s too dangerous.”
Haider won’t get a wild card this time, so he has to qualify by being one of the top six scullers in Asia. It’s do-able. At the world championships last year, Haider was ranked in the top six, but he has to do it on the right day. It’s nip and tuck. He’ll need a coach if he’s to make it.
Emily Seebohm (Australian swimmer)
She’s only 19 and very, very strong. She won a gold in the 4x100m medley relay at the Olympics in Beijing, but since then she’s won four golds, two silvers and three bronzes at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. And those were in a lot of different strokes: backstroke, freestyle, and butterfly as well. She’s a fantastic all-rounder and will start as a massive favourite for gold in the pool.