Open water swimming's poster girl Keri-Anne Payne made history when she took silver in the very first Olympic 10K marathon swim in Beijing. A year later she followed this feat with gold at the 2009 World Championships.
A true water baby, Keri-Anne grew up in South Africa, where she was already a strong front crawl swimmer at the age of five. When her parents returned to Britain in her early teens, Keri-Anne quickly made the British junior squad and competed in her first senior meet just two days after her 17th birthday.
When she's not battling currents in two-hour open water swims, Keri-Anne is busy competing in the fast and furious pool-based 400m IM (individual medley) event. She competed in the 200m and 400m IM in Beijing, in addition to her open water triumph, and plans to pull off the same feat in London 2012. We caught up with Keri-Anne to find out how she maintains Olympian endurance and speed when the going gets tough.
What did it mean to take silver in the inaugural Olympic 10K marathon swim? Were you expecting to come home with a medal?
It was an amazing experience and I certainly wasn't expecting a medal. I can't really remember much of the open water swim, it all went by in a bit of a blur to be honest. I enjoyed the event and just tried to focus on what I needed to do - sometimes you can get flustered if you pay too much attention to everyone else's race.
Your GB team-mate Cassie Patten took bronze in Beijing in the same event. Is there rivalry between the two of you or do you train together?
We train together at the same club. There's always going to be a healthy rivalry between us whenever we do a hard set together or whenever we're in a race. However, the great thing about swimming is that all competitiveness starts and ends in the pool.
What's the biggest difference in technique between swimming in open water and in a pool?
In open water you have to be more aware of your surroundings and the current of the water you're swimming in. You shouldn't completely change your stroke, you should just be adding things like sighting into your swim.
You compete both in the pool and in open water events. Where do you do most of your training?
I do all my training in the pool. My training consists of ten sessions of 7K a week, so roughly 70K. We have a coach who's there with us all the time and he writes the plans for each session. We do two sessions of heart rate-based sets and then race pace sets. It's a distance training programme specifically designed for open water.
Do you ever train in open water?
No, I only swim in open water during the events themselves. It's partly due to convenience as we already travel quite a lot to different events. Another thing is that we're already pushing our bodies to their limits and training as hard as we can. The last thing we need is to do is keep getting into cold lakes, which are fairly standard in Britain, and then get ill.
Open water swimming is known for being quite 'physical' and boisterous... How do you cope with that on race day?
You have to go in there knowing there's always going to be a bit of contact - you can't expect anything else really. But there's an unwritten code of treating people how you want to be treated. There's also referees and ultimately it's just something you have to deal with.
If you could give just one tip for people who are new to open water swimming, what would it be?
Just make sure you can comfortably do the distance in a pool and even train over that distance. That helps to give you confidence in your ability and it'll make the swim feel easier on the day. If you have to wear a wetsuit, I'd always recommend practising with it in the pool before your race. It can change your stroke a little, because it slightly restricts your shoulders, so it's a good idea to get used to the difference.
What's the most common mistake people make in their first open water race?
They swim far too fast at the start. The 10K is called the marathon event for a reason. People sprint at the beginning and then panic halfway through because they haven't paced it correctly. Instead you should go out nice and steady at a speed you can handle, then you might have more to give at the end. It's all about sprinting at the end of the race.
What are the worst conditions to swim in?
The worst conditions are when it's really rainy and not very clear. I don't need to see the bottom of the lake or sea, but sometimes it can get so bad that you can't even see your hand in front of your face.
What do you hope to achieve this season?
It's the Olympic qualifying year for open water, so my aim is to make the team. A lot can happen between now and the Olympics. First of all I need to focus on making the team and then I can set myself new goals if I achieve that.
You took the 400m IM bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. How does that medal compare to your open water achievements? Which means more to you - the open water or pool races?
They both matter just as much to me. I really struggled with swimming in 2006 and I was very close to quitting. I decided to switch events from the 800m freestyle to medley swimming. I regained the love of swimming and rediscovered the reasons why I do it, plus I really enjoyed the variety of training in medley swimming. If it wasn't for the medley I wouldn't have won the medal in Beijing or at the World Championships the following year. Pool swimming is really close to my heart and especially the medley, so it was great to get my Commonwealth medal.
Will you try to compete in both the medley and open water in 2012, or just focus on a single event?
It was amazing to be able to compete in both events in Beijing. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to compete in both again, but there's just so much that can happen between now and then, so we'll just have to wait and see.
Keri-anne Payne is a Speedo sponsored ambassador. For more information regarding the Speedo Aquafitness range please visit speedo.co.uk.