Daniel Wiffen: ‘Ever since I was younger, my aim has been to break a world record’

The Irish Olympic medal prospect has a firm confidence in his abilities

The first Paris media day of Olympic year, and when Ireland’s new swimming world record holder pops up on Zoom one of the things noticeable are the pictures of himself on the wall behind him.

Clearly Daniel Wiffen is not shy about how far or fast he’s come in the pool over the last year or so, with a touch of giddiness too, as if somehow oblivious to the immense potential he’s already realising.

Sitting in the bedroom of his student residence at Loughborough University, Wiffen moves out of his way to reveal a series of pictures from the Tokyo Olympic pool three years ago, having qualified as a 19-year-old with no weight on his shoulders – and not just in the physical sense.

He will turn 23 the week before the Paris Games begin in July, only this time he’s targeting a podium place in three freestyle events – the 400m, 800m, and 1,500m. Wiffen has already made Irish sporting history as the first swimmer to break a world record; given the circumstances there’s every possibility it won’t be his last.


“Ever since I was younger, my aim has been to break a world record,” he says. “I’ve always loved swimming, have watched everything since I was 12, 13, always looked up to the world record holders. Because they’re obviously the fastest person ever, and that’s what I wanted to become.

“Maybe when I was younger that was very unrealistic. You can ask any of the pathway coaches in Ireland, they wouldn’t even say I’d be good nationally when I was younger, but I just had the determination.”

Which he unquestionably showed at the climax of last month’s European Short Course Championships on the outskirts of Bucharest, winning his third gold medal of the week, in the 800m freestyle, his time of 7:20.46 taking three seconds off the world record which had stood for 15 years to the Australian great Grant Hackett.

It was the oldest record in the swimming books, and Wiffen certainly isn’t resting on it either: he’s targeting the same three podium places at next month’s World Swimming Championships in Doha, which were won against most of his likely rivals come Paris.

“I think it was more I just needed to build on, from each year. This year especially where my main focus is obviously the Olympics, but my coach said to me ‘this year you may want to break a world record’. It may sound a bit weird, but I actually didn’t rest to break the world record. I just turned up at the meet and swam fast. It’s kind of exciting to feel that way because I know I didn’t put the full preparation in.

“And I ended up smashing a world record that’s never been touched in years, and I’m just looking to build on that in the next couple of months.”

Truth is his world record nearly didn’t happen, given Wiffen spent the night before repeatedly emptying the contents of his stomach: “I was quite sick, yeah, woke up at 2am, I must have eaten something bad, because I was throwing up from 2 to 6am.

“Then obviously I was thinking about pulling out from the event, but we had all the procedures, knew exactly how to hydrate. So I woke up after a five-hour nap, I knew I was going to swim the race, even if I was still throwing up. I wasn’t going to quit, after winning two golds, [trying to] round it out with a third.”

Wiffen’s fearlessness is also unique for Irish swimming. John Rudd, Swim Ireland’s performance director, describes him as having “a blend of cerebral qualities, emotional qualities, along with a tremendous physiological quality.”

Rudd adds: “Outside of that he has exceptional self-belief and confidence.

“One of the highest levels of self-belief I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t cross over into arrogance or conceit. He applies that on a day-to-day basis. It is rare he has a bad day at work.”

From the small village of Magheralin, on the Armagh side of the county border with Down, Wiffen still credits his twin brother Nathan as his chief rival and critic in the pool.

“We’ve done everything the same, we’re actually the exact same person, apart from Nathan used to swim backstroke, because our parents wouldn’t let him do freestyle, because that was my event, they didn’t want us to fight. But then he decided to change and he’s obviously making these finals too, so it worked for him.”

He also believes he’s starting to instil some fear into his rivals.

“They’re probably looking at me thinking ‘this guy drops time every time he swims’ which I find is quite an advantage.

“But you do need to keep a level head. Over the years when I was younger, I was probably a bit cocky towards it, and before world champs in the summer, I was pretty confident that I was going to win, and obviously I came fourth twice.

“That changed something in me, really made me more determined this season than before. There are still people who I need to beat around the world. So that’s just the next box to tick, to go race world champs, and try to beat them.”

Bet he believes it too.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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