Daniel Wiffen: ‘I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in’

The 21-year-old Irish distance swimmer has an eye on the podium at the next Olympic Games

He thinks for a few seconds making a sound.

“Ehhhhhh … I’m not exactly sure,” he says. “But it has been over 20 times.”

That will do. It is hard to keep up. Irish records have tumbled over the past two years. Even Daniel Wiffen has lost count and he has been the one smashing and bending everything out of shape at the long-range end of swimming.

The 21-year-old also broke through a magical swimming barrier this year, when he became the first Irish athlete to crash through the 15-minute mark for the 1,500m freestyle event.

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Wiffen is part of an Irish team that has been busy the last couple of seasons redrawing the records map. Almost half, eight out of 17, of the individual male records from 50m to 1,500m currently on the books have been set over that period as Irish swimmers have begun to turn up in Olympic and World Championship finals and appear on the podium at European level.

In the women’s individual list, the number is also eight records set in 2021 and 2022 out of 17, Olympic finalist Mona McSharry holding four of those.

Wiffen’s piece of Irish swimming lore arrived at the Budapest FINA World Swimming Championships in July

Wiffen has three of the current high marks at 1,500m, 800m and 400m. All of them have been set this year and he is not finished. He has designs on lopping off more chunks.

“Yeah, I like breaking records, especially when I broke the 15 minutes. That one was definitely the better one,” he says.

“The 15-minute barrier is world class. If you are under that you are in the top 70 to do it. I think with my time, at the moment, I’m top 50 ever. Just to get under the 15-minute barrier it’s massive. Then you can say you are a distance swimmer.”

In swimming the 15-minute mark has a history. Like the four-minute mile, first broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister, swimming 1,500m in less than 15 minutes is a sure-fire way to get noticed.

The first time it was broken was at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow with last July marking 42 years since Vladimir Salnikov achieved the goal.

Although the race has been around since Athens 1896, the first official 1,500m race in a pool was at London 1908, when a local, Henry Taylor, earned the title after just 15 lengths of the first and only Olympic pool that was 100m long.

By the time Moscow arrived, American swimmers had been dreaming of the number. Then as history unfolded, the US team, under instruction from the Carter administration, boycotted the games following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

That gave opportunist Salnikov, a relatively clear field and he took it becoming the first to leave 15 minutes behind, swimming the distance in 14:58.27.

Wiffen’s piece of Irish swimming lore arrived at the Budapest FINA World Swimming Championships in July. Already holding the previous Irish best of 15:02.78, he hacked it down again by almost five seconds. Swimming quicker than Salnikov did, the Loughborough University student touched at 14:57.66, to finish fourth in his heat.

He first took the Irish Record in December 2020, breaking Andrew Meegan’s mark of 15:19.98 with a swim of 15:19.04. It was only fractions that time. But he has since consumed the event, taking over 20 seconds off over an 18-month spell. It now sits in the Irish record list at 14:51.79.

“Yes, definitely [15 minutes] was in my head,” he says. “I thought it might take me another year to get the long course record. But I got it in the same season. It is a very good barrier to break.

“I know from training how I am feeling. I know nearly every time that I’m going to a race that I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. That alone gives me the confidence. I know that I’m going to get a PB if I’m in the best physical shape.

“Also, I know what the pace feels like from just repping it out in training. You just get like a clock going in your head, you automatically do the time. You feel it.

“My old coach (Martin McGann), who was coaching me from when I was very young, he always said to me he wanted to be there when I broke 50 minutes. It’s not just important to me. It is important to Irish swimming to show that anybody can do it. It’s a hard barrier to break. But obviously if you know somebody who is doing it then they can strive to do it too.”

My end goal, I’d like to get a medal at the Olympics ... I definitely think it is realistic

Wiffen was also setting ambitions around the Irish 800m freestyle record and that was shattered when he became the first Irish swimmer to qualify for a final in a World Championship event, again in Budapest this summer.

Swimming in lane one in heat three of four, he clocked 7:46.32, knocking over four seconds off the previous record of 7:50.74, that he had set in April.

He now has the 10 fastest Irish performances in the history of the men’s 800m freestyle and has broken the Irish record over the distance four times. A feature of his better swims has been the negative splits, an ability to pace himself faster in the second half of the race than in the first.

“Yes, definitely it is significant, especially in the 800m,” he says. “At the world championships, I negatively split, where the first 400m were slower than the second 400m. I think that’s the way I need to do it. I do it in training and I guess that’s the pay off. It comes out in the race.

“I know that when I am training my strategy is that I train the way I race. I like to say I’m detailed. My old coach used to kick me out of training if I missed times by 100th of a second. Yeah, it was [severe]. I was only 15 at the time. I was taught to be disciplined, to be hitting times to get me to the top.

“He told me he wouldn’t do it for anybody else. He said he knew I loved training and racing so much that it would have a positive effect on me. I’d come back the next day to hit all the times. He was right, yeah.”

As he now looks towards another World Championships in 2023 and the Olympic Games in Paris the following year, Wiffen places nothing in his way of believing in the possibility of an Olympic medal.

A head movement that must be streamlined he says is a straightforward fix to help bite more deeply into his times. Race strategy will also streamline as he gains more experience.

Nor is Wiffen afraid to challenge himself to make large gains. He talks about heavy workloads as his friend and a head down attitude in training that has already hardened his faith.

“My end goal, I’d like to get a medal at the Olympics,” he says. “Yes, I definitely think it is realistic. Looking at my races there are so many pointers I’ve seen, where I know I can improve and drop times further.

“I’m not even that far away. The times I did during the summer were only 10 seconds off getting a medal and the multiple errors I made… I can drop 10 seconds if I can improve them.

“First of all, I can be more stable on course if you know what I mean. I keep my head bobbing up and down when I’m swimming. If I keep that line flat and my head stays neutral, then you can shave 10 seconds off easily just doing that.

“It just causes a lot of drag. No, it’s not easy to correct. But I’m working on it. It’s a big three-year plan for the next Olympics. I’ve got some time to work on it.”

Alive to the possibilities ahead, he trains and lives in England with his identical twin brother Nathan. He too is a promising swimmer, who hopes to break through next year.

“I can see something special coming from him,” he says of Nathan. “We could have twins on the team. That would be great.”

Not for more than 25 years have Irish swimming records seemed so ephemeral with numbers tumbling at each serious gala. For Wiffen it is not if but when over eight lengths, or 30 lengths, the records already affirming a sharp sense of direction.

“I like to be the hardest worker in the pool,” he says. “I guess that’s just my mentality.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times