Great Lengths: Kara Hanlon

July 21, 2022

She never thought much of it at the time, but the formative years of Kara Hanlon’s swimming career were very different from most of her international peers. Despite the physical restrictions of training at a venue that is half the distance of a short course pool and a quarter of a long course lap, she has gone to great lengths to make sure she would be representing Team Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. 

“Yeah, this is going to sound weird but my coach was really inventive and we would try a lot of different things,” explains the 100m British breaststroke champion and Team Scotland Commonwealth Games medal hopeful as she recalls those early days. 

“We would do a lot of work with bungee cords that were attached to one end of the pool and you would have to swim against it. 

“My coach [DR Morrison] would have a rope line and if your feet went back past that rope line you would have to start again. Sometimes it would be 15-second sprints, sometimes it was a minute.  That stuff was hard!” 

But, growing up on the Isle of Lewis, where the pool she trained in was just 12.5m, compared to the 25m or even 50m most swimmers on the mainland use to clock up the distances needed to reach the top, creativity was instrumental in getting her where she wanted to be. 

“Because it was a 12.5m pool, he would also hang a rope over the pool cover, which was about a metre from the wall, and you would swim from one end round the rope to the other end and that would be about 25m and for 50m you would come back up around the rope the other way. 

It was weird getting used to that but it really helped me. I had to work to maintain stroke rate and be able to maintain my speed, as you have to slow down getting round that rope then speed up again. It seems crazy now thinking about it – but it obviously really worked for me.” 

Making the drive from Stornoway to Ness four times a week, by the time she was 17 Hanlon had shown sufficient promise and delivered consistently enough at regional and national school and age group level to earn some special treatment. 

She revealed: “I didn’t really do morning training until I was about 16. The pool in Stornoway, which is a 25m pool, didn’t open until 8 am and, with school starting at 8.45 am, there wasn’t time for a session. So until I was 16, I wasn’t even getting up for morning training, which the kids on the mainland had been doing for years.” 

Things changed when she joined the Scottish Institute of Sport’s local performance development programme in 2013 and then, a year later, aged 17, she was inducted into the Scottish Swimming Gold squad and became a full SportScotland Institute of Sport athlete.  

“As well as helping with the likes of gym training, they decided to support me by opening the pool earlier in the morning for me. I think it started off as two mornings but gradually went up to four. They would open it at seven so I could get a good hour and a half in the pool before school. That really helped me get those extra metres in. It still wasn’t loads but it was what I needed at the time. It was tiring, though, because I wasn’t used to it. I remember being in school and thinking: ‘I’m going to fall asleep.’” 

There have been more moments like that since, as she combined university studies with her sport and moved to Edinburgh. 

Used to doing around 20km a week in the pool, she suddenly moved up to doing 50km, saying of the increased workload: “I just remember being dead all the time. My shoulders were wrecked – and it was just too much.”  

The Edinburgh University athlete’s times suffered and, for someone used to seeing the rewards of her labours, it was tough.  

There have been a couple of switches in coaches, but Hanlon is back on an upward trajectory.  

And, having missed out on the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and then, agonisingly, Gold Coast 2018, she was determined to make the plunge in Birmingham this summer. 

“I missed out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games by 0.04 of a second, which was crushing’” she said, adding: “I had previously missed the 2014 team by one person too! To miss out twice like that was tough, but it motivated me more than anything. I tried to go back to a feeling of no pressure, just swimming, and letting faster times come. I’m swimming because I love it, and I really enjoy it. I swim best that way.” 

The proof is there. The Scottish national short course and long course champion in 50m, 100m and 200m Breaststroke, she also took gold over 100m and bronze in both 50 and 200m at the British Championships at Sheffield this April, beating Olympian Sarah Vasey and bolstering the belief that she could be a Commonwealth contender. 

“My coach and I sat down at the beginning of the season and the first goal was to make the team, which I’ve done, and then the second was to challenge for a medal. I would love to do that. First, I have to make the finals.  I want to really be in with a chance for a medal.” 

There is stiff competition, though. When she won that British title, just 11 hundredths of a second separated the top three and, in Birmingham, she will also have to contend with the Australians and South Africans. 

“The field is pretty stacked so I think it will take some PB times to put myself up there in the ranks – but I think I have put myself in a good position to be able to do that,” she insisted. 

The only female breaststroker in the team, Hanlon is expecting to swim the 50m, 100m and 200m, as well as the 4x100m medley. She may also be needed in the mixed relay, although that is still to be determined. 

“It will be a busy schedule over the six days but that is really exciting.” 

Especially as swimming will, once again, have the chance to set the tone for the rest of Team Scotland. 

“Over the years I have maybe put too much pressure on myself, and I have had to learn not to do that,” said Hanlon. “Now I stay as relaxed as possible. I’ve learned to believe in the training I have been doing and trust that it will all come together on the day.” 

Article by Moira Gordon 

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