Swimming prospect Danielle Hill couldn’t hold back the tears when she discovered she had been selected for next month’s Commonwealth Games, writes John Gillespie.
All those hours in the pool and then the gym. The ridiculously early starts. The countless miles on the road travelling to competitions. Worth every second.
Her emotions got the better of her when she learnt via a text message from a friend that she would be on the plane to Glasgow. She didn’t have much time to process the news, however. She had a race to run.
“I was in tears,” she admitted. “It was on Sports Day at school and my friends came running up to me with my phone and told me I had been selected. I burst into tears.
“One of my friends, James Hamilton from Larne Swimming Club, texted me saying: ‘you probably already know this but you have been selected for the Commonwealths’. It was a bit of a whirlwind after that. It was just before a 200 metres sprint race and my tummy was turning!”
At just 14, Hill is the second-youngest member of the Northern Ireland team. Her selection is a remarkable achievement. The Belfast Model School for Girls pupil has come a long way since her first dipping her toe in the water as a little girl.
“I started swimming when I was about four,” she said. “My mum got me into it when we went on holidays; it meant she could relax when I was in the pool.
“I started with a club called Alliance at the Grove and it all kicked off from there, really.”
She would later move on to Larne Swimming Club where, under the watchful eye of coach Raymond Skillen, she really began to flourish. The race wins and the medals soon followed.
“At the age of 11 I made my first British Championships in Sheffield. I won gold in the 200m backstroke for my age group, so that’s when people began to say ‘she’s going to go somewhere; she’s going to do something’. Before that, people had spotted that I had a good stroke and thought of me as a good swimmer,” said the Carnmoney girl.
“My daddy knows Raymond who coached at Alliance before moving on to Larne. I went to Templemore for two years after Alliance and then my dad asked me if I would like to go to Larne because my sister, Louise, was there.
“Raymond was very good. He took me to my first British Championships and coached me in the lead-up.”
Following in the footsteps of Andrew Reid (Kuala Lumpur 1998) and Conor Leany (Delhi 2010), Danielle is only the third member of Larne SC to be named in a Commonwealth squad. Despite a gruelling and relentless training regime, swimming has become part of who she is. And she wouldn’t change it for the world.
“I’m up at 5 a.m. to train on Tuesday mornings and then I go to the gym after school,” she revealed. “On Wednesdays and Fridays I do double sessions: I train before and after school. On Thursdays I train before school.
“On a Saturday morning I go to the Aurora in Bangor, and then to the gym after that. On Sunday mornings I train at Magherafelt.
“It’s a part of me. If I was to say ‘I’m going to quit’, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Swimming has become a part of me and a routine in my life.
“But I do love the sport because I have made so many new friends and I have met so many people.”
She added: “I’m very competitive. In training, I see it as a competition and I think that’s what it’s all about, really.
“I beat myself up sometimes, but that’s where my mum and dad come in and they are very supportive. They encourage me to do my talking in the pool.”
Her determination in the pool has reaped personal rewards out of the pool. Alongside broadcaster Colin Murray, she was part of the Olympic Torch relay in 2012. She has also been recognised on her own patch; twice shortlisted for Junior Sportsperson of the Year in Newtownabbey Council’s Sports Awards.
“Being recognised like that makes me realise what hard work can bring,” she said.
“Not winning the two awards I have been nominated for has actually given me more determination. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t win in a sense, because I can train harder, knowing that I’m not the best and I have to keep going. I’m not quite there yet, but I have to keep working and I will get there.”
The next step on that journey begins at the Glasgow Games. And in her own words, she plans to go to Scotland to “soak up the experience”. But she has, of course,set her own targets.
Hill is set to take part in the 50m, 100m, 200m backcrawl (her preferred stroke), the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and the 4 x 100m individual medley relay. She is also in action in the also 100 and 200m freestyle.
“As a bonus I would love to get to the semi-finals or the finals,” she said.
“The 50m backcrawl is what I qualified in, so I’m hoping to maybe get a semi-final place out of it but if that doesn’t happen, the experience is there.”
Beyond Glasgow, she dreams of competing at an Olympic Games. To achieve that, she admits, the sacrifices intensify.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” she smiled. “You have to go above and beyond and I’m willing to do that.”