Swimmer - Melanie Nocher
Twelve months ago Melanie Nocher was heading to the World Student Games in Bangkok. Her Irish record in the 200m backstroke was 2:15.98 and thoughts and dreams of the Olympic Games in Beijing were just that. The ‘A’ qualifying standard stood at 2.12.73 and was a long way off. It was then that things really began to go badly.
“The past twelve months have been probably my best and worst experiences in swimming. I’ve had pneumonia and glandular fever with numerous shoulder and other injuries but through it all I’ve come back from it stronger and with more drive and desire that this is what I want to do,” explained the 20 year-old from Holywood.
The ups and downs continued for Nocher as the qualifying deadline came closer.
“The good times came when I was in Canada at the start of the year with the Price family. Training with Steve Price (a former Irish Assistant coach) was amazing; it really opened my eyes to what you can do when you put your mind to it. I went to a swim meet there and set three Irish senior short course records, taking them all off Michelle Smith. Then came the bad. The Irish Championships in May didn’t go to plan but hey I’ve learnt a massive amount from it. It’s given me a shake which was what I needed even though a lot of people forgot I was in a car crash a week before so I missed a bit of training which made me nervous about competing.”
Nocher also had a rival for the first time in her career. 18 year-old Aisling Cooney had burst onto the scene this year breaking Irish records in the 50m and 100m backstroke and more shockingly for Nocher, the 200m, which she did when completing the trio of wins at those Irish Championships with the City of Belfast swimmer finishing runner-up in all three events and left with some soul searching to do.
“I think at the Nationals it was just such a shock. I wasn’t used to having someone so close to me, I was used to winning things by miles when I was growing up so it was unfamiliar but here it’s acted as a motivating factor, I was determined it wasn’t going to happen again,” she explained.
Nocher showed all her fighting qualities at the Dutch Nationals a few weeks later regaining the Irish Senior record in the 200m backstroke with a thrilling win over Cooney by just five-hundredths of a second in a time of 2:13.84 which shaved two-hundredths of a second of her rival’s previous record set in Dublin.
Nocher remembers, “Aisling set off over a second faster than me, I didn’t go out as fast as I needed to but on the third fifty I picked it up and went past her. I nailed the last turn, I really went for it but I didn’t have a good finish, I glided into the wall and that’s probably why it was so close but it was a good race and obviously I was very pleased.”
It was a win that most probably saved her Olympic dream. Now Swim Ireland had a dilemma, Cooney had won the trial but Nocher was the fastest in Ireland. Neither swimmer had the coveted ‘A’ standard but under the Olympic Council of Ireland's special London 2012 Swim Development Programme one or both could be nominated with the ‘B’ standard. In the end both were selected, Nocher in the 200m backstroke and Cooney in the 100m.
Just a couple of days after she heard she was on the plane to Beijing, Nocher took the gold medal at the British National Championships in Liverpool setting a new Irish record of 2:12.71, justifying her selection by dipping under the ‘A’ qualifying time.
“I had a really tough month before the competition in Liverpool, training at Loughborough with Steve and that was why I think I swam so well. He was a massive help and I’ve learnt loads from him and the team over there. I trained in a brilliant environment and in a facility which I thrived on. Also the funding I receive from Sport Northern Ireland has allowed me to access these camps to train so without it I couldn’t have done it. My friends and family support has been unreal through all the good and bad times, they helped me and reminded me what’s important in life.”
She added, “The Beijing Olympics were never really in my plan until I did the time in Eindhoven so before then I wasn’t too stressed about it but now it’s been very stressful before I did the ‘A’ time. Everyone was so supportive and happy that Aisling and I were going but it was a little stressful hearing some peoples view on it outside of swimming who didn’t agree with it. Now I feel like I’ve earned my place on the team so that’s a big relief. I did feel I had to justify the selection. It was down to my progress over the past year which was why I got selected and I was so happy the Olympic Council gave us the opportunity to experience the 2008 Games to give us an opportunity to be experienced for London 2012.”
Nocher’s success is also a huge boost for the Sports Institute Northern Ireland at University of Ulster at Jordanstown. She believes she wouldn’t be an Olympian without their help.
“I can hardly think of the words to explain what the Institute has done for me. They’ve been like a second family to me helping and guiding me since 2003 and have changed me, not only physically, but I now look at my life and sport with a professional attitude. I receive advice on how to plan my life, on strength and conditioning and the physiotherapists are always been there to repair me, which is very often. I also get nutritionists and sports psychologists when I need them along with medical and biomechanical support in and out of the pool which is necessary.”
Now the pressure is off, she has achieved her goal of reaching the Games. Hopefully, by being able to relax, she’ll swim faster than ever at the Water Cube and that would be good enough for perhaps a semi-final place which would mean top-16 in the world.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself for the Games. I want to go and enjoy myself and swim as fast as I can and take in as much of the experience as possible. Hopefully I’ll do some personal best times which would be fabulous.”