THE board above the Stockport Metro pool is emblazoned with the names of club swimmers, several of whom are Olympic medallists. They include Graeme Smith, Steve Parry, Cassie Patten and Keri-Anne Payne. One of the newest names is Holly Hibbott: her performances this year and those of her friend, Abbie Wood, make both girls leading contenders in the Young Sportswoman category of the Sunday Times and Sky Sports Sportswomen of the Year Awards, in association with Vitality.
Although aged only 15 and so two years below the junior age limit, Hibbott took the 2015 European title and finished third in the world championships over 800m freestyle. However, it is not just her performances that impress Sean Kelly, the head coach at Stockport’s Intensive Training Centre. He says that Hibbott shares “the same characteristics of a champion” of so many of the outstanding competitors he has guided.
“We had seen Holly swim in races for a number of years. The talent was obvious but what I did not realise until she came here was how hard she works,” Kelly says. “She comes across as a friendly, lovely girl with a sense of humour but there is a real steel about her. Often she will win races over the last 5m, even the last stroke.
“She never gives up. Compared with many of the other girls that I’ve had before, she also has more natural speed and power. As a club we punch way above our weight in the northwest. Holly loves it here. Without blowing our own trumpet, we are the place to come to.”
Hibbott’s father, Paul, runs a swimming school in Southport and she learnt to swim by the age of three. Her mother, Pippa, recalls: “She wasn’t that great to start with, but she was enthusiastic and joined in loads of the sessions and she just got stronger and stronger.”
Her zest for competition was shown at the age of eight, when she entered a club gala for the first time. Pippa says: “Holly cut her foot on the edge of the pool before her opening event and she nearly went hysterical because she thought she might not be allowed to take part. She was saying, ‘I want to race. I want to race.’ Eventually she was bandaged up and swam.”
After finishing second in the 2014 European junior championships in Dordrecht, Holland, Hibbott has improved immensely this year. She clocked 8min 39.02sec to take the 2015 title in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June and then 8min 31.56sec in the world junior championships in Singapore, a time that ranked her third in Britain as a senior.
Looking ahead to the Olympic Games, Kelly claims: “You’d be an idiot to say that she has not got an opportunity to be a possible for Rio next year.” Training is gradually being increased this winter — she often swims 70,000m a week already — but next summer is also when she will take at least five more GCSE exams, having already passed science and PE a year early. With the Olympic trials in April, managing her time will not be easy.
Her home in Southport is at least an hour’s drive from the 50m pool at Stockport, so Hibbott has problems fitting in her sessions, attendance at Stanley High School and homework. She says: “It is pretty hard with all the travelling and sometimes you know you can’t go out with friends because of competition, training or schoolwork.”
Some of her sessions are in Southport, where Mark Patrickson coaches her in consultation with Kelly. Occasionally, Hibbott trains alone in the 25m tank that her father bought after it was used in Manchester at the 2008 world short-course championships. He has installed it next to his swimming school.
Hibbott’s main relaxation away from the pool is riding a pony that she shares with her sister, one of four siblings. She says: “I don’t take it seriously but it makes a nice change sometimes at weekends.”
Abbie Wood occasionally stays with Holly so that they can train together. Otherwise, they keep in touch through Facebook and text messages, as Wood, who also won a European junior title this year, is based at the Intensive Training Centre at Loughborough. Abbie lives in a “sports elite” house of eight girls and nine boys and fits her training schedule around studying for a sport and exercise level-three qualification at Loughborough College.
Wood, 16, whose home is in Buxton, Derbyshire, won four medals at this year’s European junior championships, including gold in the 400m individual medley in 4min 41.97sec.
She took a 1.79sec lead on the opening 100m butterfly, only to trail by 1.90sec in third place after the second leg on backstroke. She then recovered the lead on breaststroke, eventually winning by 3.04sec after the 100m on freestyle.
“Breaststroke is my strongest stroke while backstroke is, shall we say, a work in progress,” she says. “It is always such a scare when I am behind after the backstroke and I know how much there is to do to catch up and win.”
Wood has been examining underwater films of her backstroke technique with coaches Kevin Renshaw and Dave Hemmings at Loughborough, and is now trying to acquire the right rhythm for the stroke, saying: “We are just taking it one step at a time, but it is something that I know I need to improve.”