This year, adding to our fantastic line-up of Athlete Mentors is Paralympic swimmer and para-triathlete, David Hill.

David competed as a swimmer in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, reaching the finals in his main event, the 100m backstroke S9.

Having retired as a swimmer in 2012, David started a new journey as a para-triathlete the following year and made his way to Rio in 2016.

After announcing his retirement to competitive sport in 2016, he now coaches swimming.

At this year’s School Games, his experience in triathlon will help mentor hundreds of the UKs cycling stars and young triathletes.

We had a chat with David to find out his top tips and a little bit more about his sporting career…

 

David, what’s your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest achievement was definitely qualifying for the 2004 Paralympic Games, mainly because it was a massive surprise as I was only 15 years of age.

I was actually the youngest athlete to qualify for the team out of all the sports.

There were over 350 athletes, so I was really well looked after!

 

Where did you study?

I did my GCSE’s and A-levels at boarding school alongside my swimming career. I left there and moved to Bath University; I initially applied to do an Architecture degree, but then I freaked out because I was like ‘Woah what am I doing?!”.

Trying to do such a difficult degree alongside swimming was not a good idea for me, so I actually ended up dropping out.

I soon realised it was the hands-on side of the construction industry that I wanted to do, so at that point I then applied to Bath College instead and spent two years doing carpentry and joinery, so I finished there with a Level 2 in Bench Joinery.

 

Who do you look up to?

I think mainly it’s my swimming coach, his name was Robin Brew. He’s a former Olympic athlete himself, in swimming and in triathlon as well, which are the two sports I’ve done.

I started triathlon long after I worked with him, so he must have planted that seed in my head. Swimmers actually make really good triathletes, so he was a bit of a role model for me.

 

I worked with him in a boarding school environment as well, so he was like a father figure to me: he was my councillor, he was my first aider. He was everything!

 

Have you got any study tips for our student athletes?

I think going to boarding school for me was a bit of a blessing; I was surrounded by a lot of other people that were very like-minded... People who had successes and big ambitions and aims, and they weren’t afraid to share them.

And I kind of feel that, in the little town that I was born in, if I said I wanted to be an Olympic athlete they would have just laughed at me, so that school environment was great.

Even now people just don’t think they can make that of themselves being from their town– and that’s why I absolutely love going to the schools I visit.

I go into local schools and they ask if I’m from London or some big city, just because they think big things and success and Olympic athletes just can’t be born in the South West.

So for me, being in a place of excellence where people were just bouncing off other people’s success was really powerful. I think that is what will be so amazing about School Games, because there’s such a buzz; if you go to an Olympic Village there’s a massive high and celebration, so I think we’ll get a sense of that.

 

What about any teamwork tips?

I’ve never been in a team sport, but I’ve always said I’m the only person that can do that part of my race, it’s down to me as well as my support team

When I was an athlete, I had something called the ‘helping hand’ – so if you hold your hand out, you have five points of contact that are there to help you.

Swimming especially can be a lonely sport, when you’re in the water you’re not having many conversations. So if something is going on in your mind, you need to offload and share before because right there in the pool isn’t necessarily the time.

 

What did you used to want to be, growing up? Did you always dream of being an athlete?

One of my dream jobs aside from sport would have been a builder or a carpenter, just because I wanted to build my own house. And I’m pretty much doing that right now!

My grandad was a carpenter and he passed on all his tools to me when he passed away. I was quite young but when it came to the time, I wanted to learn how to use all of these tools instead of giving them away.

I can really vividly remember a conversation with my parents: I was stood in the kitchen and I was about nine years old and I said “I don’t want to do what my sister’s doing”.

My sister’s four years older than me and she was entering county competitions at the time. And, yeah, it’s incredible to think just a few years later I was competing at the Olympic Games.

It was never really my dream, but swimming was what I loved and I think it clicked on really early in my life when I made the connection that working really hard and loving what you do equals a really successful performance.

I just worked really hard; I wasn’t a talented athlete whatsoever!

I was about 12 and somebody tapped me on the shoulder at a county competition and said “If you train a bit more, you could be quite good”.

I kind of freaked out, and then I saw this same guy stood with my parents on the side-line and I thought “Oh no, they’re going to really push me”.

They weren’t pushy parents at all, but they really listened to that advice, and then sought all the possible avenues for supporting me and finding opportunities after.

 

How do you tend to prepare for competitions?

I’ve played around with lots of different types of psychology. Some races – like when I qualified for the Paralympic Games in 2004 – I kind of just believed in myself a little more.

Some races I’ve gone into feeling really nervous, and had to use a lot of breathing techniques. Other races I haven’t actually been hyped up enough, which I didn’t necessarily appreciate at the time.

I wasn’t an athlete who had a one model that fitted all, and I still don’t think I’ve got an answer for how I can perform to my best. Whatever it is you choose, make sure you stick to that and don’t get distracted by other people.

So if you do want to listen to music and not speak to anyone, that’s alright. If you see all your other competitors dancing around, having a laugh, throwing bottles, don’t feel as though that’s the correct thing to do. Stick to what you know is your best preparation technique.

 

What’s been your best strategy for overcoming defeat?

I coach swimming now and I’m always trying to encourage people to be the best that they can be and chase their own times and targets.

Swimming is an individual sport: you’ve got your PB and that’s what I try and get them to focus on. It’s far too easy to start comparing yourself to others, and that's what I try and help young people not to do.

Instead, compare yourself against yourself. If that’s the best performance you’ve ever done, than that’s an outstanding performance. By comparing yourself with others, it’s easy to skew that picture.

 

What was the most difficult country/environment you’ve ever competed in?

I guess Rio was a real challenge; we had to do quite a lot of acclimatisation because it was extremely hot. And really choppy as well, which is something you can’t necessarily prepare for as well.

With triathlon, you’ve just got in the sea once the klaxon goes off and just go for it – you can’t think about if there’s any jellyfish, or if it’s safe or if it’s cold… you’ve just got to go for it.

You have just got to put your fears behind you, rely on the training you’ve done and understand everyone else is in the same position and they might not be showing how petrified they are.

What I learned was if you act confident, you are going to fool your competitors and you will be confident. So it’s learning to put that race mask on – you don’t have to live with it on, absolutely not – but as soon as that whistle goes, athlete mode and game on. 

Have you got a favourite cheat meal?

For me it would be something like beans on toast! The countries that I’ve been to might have really nice food, but I always just crave British food.

I’ll come back, beans on toast, bit of salt, pepper and cheese – can’t beat it!

 

And finally, what’s your favourite wind-down technique?

Sharing whatever’s on your mind with your team and discussing some really practical tactics. If that’s not an option, than writing it down somewhere also is good.

For me, if there’s a hot bath available to physically relax your muscles, or listening to some really calm music… or access to something you love. Whether that’s someone like a best friend or something… like a chocolate bar!

Anything like crafts, or even cooking helps me too - I’m quite a tactile individual, so just anything that involves making something from start to finish I love!

 

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