An Interview With Keri-anne Payne
Insights from an Olympic athlete
First published October 4, 2011.
A while ago I wrote an article entitled ‘Talent, hard work, and character: Lessons from Keri-anne Payne’. It was a series of reflections based on my having watched Keri-anne (an Olympic silver medal winning swimmer) from afar this last year or so from the perspective of looking at someone maximising their talents and turning them into true strengths.
Keri-anne read the article and sent me a message via Twitter to say that she really liked it. (Phew!) Out of that conversation I then asked Keri-anne if I could conduct an email interview with her to get a more personal and direct sense of how she’s gone about maximising her potential. And she very kindly agreed.
When did you first realise that you had an exceptional talent for swimming and how did that discovery happen?
I started swimming when I was about four. My older brother and sister both swam before me, so I naturally followed in their footsteps being the annoying little sister. From there I fell in love with the sport and enjoyed everything about it. I guess I didn’t realise I could make an Olympic team until I moved to Britain and narrowly missed out on selection for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
What was the process by which you identified that long-distance swimming was where you are most talented?
When I was young I didn’t do any specific training that I was aware of, I just went to training and happily did whatever my coach asked. I used to target the 400 Free and the 100 Fly (very different events, but that’s what I wanted to do).
When I moved to the UK and went to train with Dave Crouch he did a test on me. It’s certainly not a scientific test, but one he used to do. The test involved floating and seeing how your body sits, i.e. if your legs sink to the floor you’re more than likely to be a sprinter, or if you float then you’re more suited for distance.
I basically stayed poker straight on top of the water and it was decided we would see how I got on with some distance training. It went well and I decided that was the path for me.
Who have been the key people supporting, encouraging, and challenging you in terms of helping you both identify and develop your talent?
My family have been a huge part of my development and character and I would not be where I am today without their support. My three coaches have had a huge part in developing my skills. Di Williamson - my first coach - taught me how to swim and how to love the sport. Dave Crouch honed in my skills from childhood and put them in a direction and gave me a great platform to work off! And last but not least Sean Kelly taught me the discipline of being an international swimmer and how to deal with disappointment and success. He improved my technique and gave me the confidence I needed!
What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had (or indeed continue to have) to overcome in trying to ensure you maximise your potential?
In 2006 after the commonwealth games in Melbourne I very nearly decided to call it day for swimming. I came fourth in the 800 free. In hindsight this was a great result, but if I had swam my best time I could have been in contention to win it! I had not swam a PB in a few years and I reached the age where anything bad knocked my confidence. I came back well and truly broken!
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing or you’re wasting your time.”
Sean didn’t really know what to do with me and the only reason I didn’t quit was because I didn’t know anything else. I had always swam and couldn’t imagine not swimming. So Sean and I decided I needed a change so I went from 800m’s to 400m and 200m individual medley. And we also decided to try doing 10k’s. What I learnt from this is that you have to enjoy what you’re doing or you’re wasting your time. Luckily I found my love for swimming again. It took a long time - it wasn’t until 2008 that I started loving swimming again - but it made it clear for me that the day I no longer enjoy swimming is the day I need to stop.
Who have been the people from fields other than swimming who have inspired you to push yourself to the limit and make the most of your life?
My family! I was never the girl to have posters on my bedroom walls when I was young. My belief was in myself and my love for the sport. I never really needed motivation - I just did what my older siblings did! Later on in my career Steve Parry, James Goddard, Adrian Turner, and Graeme Smith (who I trained with before the Athens games) were the inspiration I needed. They were all true professionals and another example of loving the thing your doing and doing well at it!
Who are the people and what are the things that keep you grounded and help you maintain a healthy perspective, balance, and focus in life?
Again family are hugely important to me and they keep me grounded and support me no matter what! All the guys at training keep me grounded too by the relentless banter we have with each other; if someone misses a session we all give them grief so they don’t do it again and if someone wins something there is a moment of appreciation, then the banter begins again.
“It’s not all about talent or hard work - don’t get me wrong you need both of these - but it’s how you deal with pressure, disappointment, success, frustration, etc.”
What advice would you give to someone (swimmer or not) who wants to identify their talent, develop it, and truly maximise their potential?
If you have found something you truly enjoy then you have a great advantage. It’s not all about talent or hard work - don’t get me wrong you need both of these - but it’s how you deal with pressure, disappointment, success, frustration, etc. If you can keep your cool, train hard and enjoy what you do, you have a winning formula!
There are two things that jumped out to me the most from this interview that are really strong takeaways we can all apply to our lives, whatever it is that we do.
The first thing is the importance Keri-anne puts on enjoying what she does. Being good at something doesn’t automatically make it a strength. There are many things in life I can do very well, but I hate doing them. And if what we do doesn’t energise us, then it will very soon drain us.
Of course, finding something to do with our lives that we enjoy and that energises us doesn’t mean that every moment of it is fantastic! But what we give our lives to has to cross the 51% mark. If what we do doesn’t energise us more than it drains us, then we are doing the wrong thing.
The second point that jumps out to me from this interview is the importance of having the right people around us. Family, coaches, mentors, have such a key role to play in our lives. We need to surround ourselves with good people who will love and support us, help us focus on the right things, pick us up when things fall apart, and generally encourage and strengthen us.