Keri-Anne Payne has no fear for open water in Serpentine

Keri-Anne Payne

This Friday Keri-Anne Payne will be competing in the open water in Eilat in Israel, taking another step along the way towards the Olympics. Payne became the first British athlete to qualify for London 2012 when she won the world championships in Shanghai last year , her second world title in succession. She is one of Great Britain’s outstanding sportswomen, and while she doesn’t yet enjoy the public profile of her great friend and teammate Rebecca Adlington, that should change this summer. will start as heavy favourite for the Games 10km title.

The open water swimming at London 2012 will take place in the Serpentine at Hyde Park, which will be a rather more salubrious environment than the ones Payne and her fellow competitors are used to swimming in. “The dead dogs in China were definitely the worst,” Payne says with a sigh. “The jellyfish in Melbourne weren’t fun either. I don’t think it was possible not to get stung all over – there were literally thousands of them and they were getting chopped up by the boats because there were so many boats around. And they don’t stop stinging just because they’re chopped up.”

Compared to those, Payne says, the prospect of passing a plastic bag or being pestered by a swan in the Serpentine isn’t too onerous. “It will be a piece of cake,” she says. “Believe me.” She has even swum with sharks in her time. No wonder that over the course of two hours or so it takes Payne to swim 10km she deliberately fills her mind with lighter thoughts. Payne says she can sum up most of what she is thinking about during a race in two words: hamburgers and handbags.

"I genuinely think ‘I can’t wait to have a burger after this’ or something stupid like that," Payne says. "I just think about what kind of treat I can have or what handbag I’m going to buy next time or something like that." Payne has to occupy her mind somehow. Otherwise, out in the open water, she is overcome by ominous thoughts about what’s beneath her. "Everyone has their ‘Jaws moment’," she says. "When you think ‘Oh my God – no, no, no’. That’s it, I’m not going to think about it again. Right, just carry on swimming."

A little like wicketkeepers, goalies and decathletes in their respective sports, open water competitors tend to be regarded as a strange species by their fellow swimmers. “I think to be an open water swimmer you have to have a certain amount of ‘hard’ to you,” Payne says. “You just have to expect it. So many things are thrown at us on so many occasions, you just have to kind of get on with it. Because I know if I didn’t do it, another 30 girls who would happily get in – maybe not happily – but they’d get in and they’d do it. You need to be the ruthless one.”Payne does swim in pools too, and tried to make the Olympic 800m freestyle team at the British trials. But she was suffering with a kidney infection at the time, and was beaten by Adlington and Eleanor Faulkner. “I’m not terribly upset about it,” she says, “because Ellie and Becky had absolutely fantastic swims and they were the better swimmers on the day and that’s just how it goes in the sport.” Besides, in the pool she is just another contender, whereas in the open water she is a champion.

They are a tough pack to lead. “If you’re in the wrong position, swimming next to the wrong person, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get an elbow or a kick in the stomach or something like that ,” Payne says. “You’re swimming with 30 girls and you’re all swimming in such close proximity that there are going to be elbows flying here and there and generally nine times out of 10 it’s an accident. That’s why I stick out in front because I don’t want to have to deal with all that kind of stuff.” Her rivals have got wise to her tactics, not that it seems to makes much difference. “In the last couple of years people have tried all sorts of different things and it’s fair play to them if they want to give me a challenge. I know that nobody will get in front of me.”

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