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Victoria Catterson: ‘It’s absolutely crazy that people know these first names now, on the Irish swim team’

The 22-year-old from Belfast is part of the first Irish women’s Olympic swimming relay team since 1972

It was by Victoria Catterson’s own admission the most emotionally exhausting swimming event of her life, and understandably so. Away from the double gold medal heroics by Daniel Wiffen at the World Aquatics Championships in Doha earlier this month, not everything was going according to plan.

Before any medal was won, Catterson thought she’d done enough to help secure the Irish women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team a qualifying spot for the Paris Olympics. Their heat mark of 3:43.95 didn’t improve on the 3:41.75 clocked at last year’s championships in Fukuoka, but it did keep them in the 16th and last qualifying spot for Paris.

Only one country, Slovenia, could knock them off that perch come the final, and they did exactly that, swimming 3:41.72 to deny the Irish women their Paris ticket by .03 of a second.

“Originally we thought we had 16th place,” says Catterson, “were so happy in the interviews, ecstatic, on that emotional high. Not realising there was an opportunity for another team (Slovenia) to get ahead of us in the finals. Then with them getting ahead by such a small margin, it was just devastating.”


Catterson couldn’t dwell on that disappointment. The 22-year-old Belfast swimmer was back in the pool two days later for her heats of the 200m freestyle. She finished in 1:59.75, just .01 off her Irish record set last year, having already become just the second Irish woman to break the two-minute barrier in the event.

“Again, being a millisecond off my best, just such a frustrating measure, I felt that was two opportunities missed.”

In the end, after Wiffen struck gold in the 800m and 1500m freestyle, there was a silver lining for the women’s 4x100m medley relay: although they didn’t swim in Doha, the quartet of Danielle Hill (backstroke), Mona McSharry (breaststroke), Ellen Walshe (butterfly) and Catterson (freestyle) were still ranked 13th of the 16, thanks to their 4:01.25 from last year, so Paris now beckons.

They’ll be the first Irish women to contest an Olympic swimming relay since 1972, when both the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley lined up in Munich.

Catterson hasn’t given up on qualifying for the individual 200m freestyle, a last chance coming at the National Championships in May, at the National Aquatics Centre (NAC), where she’s now based under Dublin hub head coach Steven Beckerleg.

“Doha was a bit of a weird one,” she says, “sort of funny feelings all round, but it was just exhausting, and I needed a few days off after that one.”

Go to countries in Europe, it’s just 50m pools galore. Even across the water in England, schools have 50m pools, it’s mad the investment that is put in over there

So to give herself that break from swimming, Catterson planned a few nights out with friends in Belfast, thinking she’d escape from it all.

“Then I was out for dinner with my friends, and one of them asks me ‘what about Daniel?’. It’s absolutely crazy that people know these first names now, on the Irish swim team, but that’s the level that we’re pushing for.

“We’ve had Mona and Ellen (Keane) at such high levels, for a few years now, but to have people winning gold medals and setting world records is absolutely insane. But not that surprising to the team, we know the standard of athletes we have, we know the work we put in, the mindsets that we have.”

Not that this welcome recognition for Irish swimming reflects any more fulfilment of the necessary facilities. Swim Ireland chief executive Sarah Keane was on Today with Claire Byrne on Monday, highlighting the still dearth of swimming pools in the country, and that’s just to meet the recreational and educational needs.

The NAC in Dublin, completed in 2003 in part to host the Special Olympics, remains the only open access 50m pool in Dublin. UCD’s 50m pool, completed in 2012, is run by the university, while the only other 50m facility is run privately at the Westwood Gym in Clontarf.

Like most competitive swimmers, Catterson would never be thinking about the Olympics if it wasn’t for that first pool access as a youngster.

“Like any other kid I just started swimming lessons when I was four or five, at my local pool in east Belfast. Then moved to a small club in Belfast, made my way from there, and at about 15 I decided to move to Ards, probably one of the biggest swim clubs in Ireland, to take that step to take it more seriously.

“There was a real performance mindset there, to be making international teams, so then that just put me on the path I am now. But there was no 50m pool in Ards either. They do use the one in Bangor, but it’s riddled with problems as well, it’s broken constantly.

“Go to countries in Europe, it’s just 50m pools galore. Even across the water in England, schools have 50m pools, it’s mad the investment that is put in over there. And it just goes to show how far we have come as a country to reach these levels and to be aiming so high without major, major investment in swimming.”

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Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics