IN the space of 12 months, Tilly Gray has gone through three coaches, three clubs and two nationalities but the Swindon swimmer put her year from hell, and her own self-doubts, firmly behind her by earning the right to represent England at the Commonwealth Games.
Gray, the 22-year-old former Swindon Dolphin, has swapped Loughborough for Swansea for Bath since last summer and, having already qualified for this summer’s Glasgow games in the red of Wales, was informed by the sport’s authorities in the back end of 2013 that her Welsh heritage no longer met the selection criteria.
It was a whirlpool of bad news but Gray refused to drown. She conquered her own internal demons, battled past feelings of despair and, at the end of it all, grabbed 200m fly silver at the British Championships recently – her time good enough to hand her a place on the English national squad.
It’s been an extraordinary life experience – professionally and personally – for the well-spoken, mild mannered Wiltshire girl and, as she finally unloads a year’s frustration during our conversation, you can quite palpably pick out a mixture of frustration, exhaustion and sheer delight.
“I’ve been quiet with the media because this year has been so, so tough for me,” she says.
“After the summer, when I was out in America, I was swimming for Wales and have been for about five years. I qualified for the Commonwealths with Wales so I moved to Wales and within a month they said I couldn’t represent them any more due to eligibility reasons.”
Gray had previously qualified to don Wales colours through her grandparents but the Commonwealth committee changed their selection criteria and she was no longer eligible.
“It wasn’t so much Wales, it was the politics, outside but it was so frustrating because they should have checked that ages ago and it was really heartbreaking for me,” she says. “You get told you’re going to make a dream and then someone takes it away from you.
“You’ve moved your whole life to Wales and it was so hard.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough for the former Swindon Dolphin, in the run-up to Christmas, Gray was told by her coach Bud McAllister that he would be moving to a job in Australia.
“He told us that he was leaving a month before the trials so, for me, alarm bells were ringing that I couldn’t stay there because they were saying they wouldn’t be able to fund me anymore. I had to look at moving again,” she recounts.
“At the time I thought ‘do I carry on’. It was another blow and I thought ‘how much do I really want this’.”
Gray found it in herself to switch clubs again, relocating to Bath and discovering the mental strength to propel her to achieving her goals all over again.
“I’ve got a great support network at Bath and finally I don’t have to worry about outside things affecting me,” she reveals.
“For about three years I’ve had coaches leaving. My coach in Loughborough retired then I had another coach and he had to go, then I moved to Swansea and now I’m here. The first thing I asked my coach is ‘are you going to stay for at least two years’ because I can’t make another move.
“It’s been really tough.”
Finally with some sort of solid foundation beneath her feet, Gray was able to focus on the British Swimming Championships, which concluded in Glasgow last month.
She made a good go of the 100m fly, recording a season’s best, before romping to 200m silver from an unfamiliar outside lane.
“I was going into the Championships quickest and after my heat times, because I’ve always been a fast heat swimmer, I had quite a lot of self doubt. I was happy with my 100, though it wasn’t as fast as it had been before,” she says.
“I’ve been working really closely with a psychologist and I went back, looked at my notes and realised that the only thing that’s going to pull me through is me believing in myself and eliminating all those self-doubts.
“Most of the 200 fly swimmers are on a par and what will get you to that wall first is believing you can do it. It was tough, it really was, because I had so many things in my head, so many distractions this year but I knew I had done the best job I could do.
“I just picked myself up. I think I was so stressed from all the other swims this week and the stress of having to requalify for England. I almost feel my hair had fallen out because of the stress. Considering I’ve had such a crazy year I was really proud to get on that podium. It just showed my mental strength.”
Given what she’s had to deal with over the course of the past 12 months, Gray can surely now look forward to calmer waters in the pool as she prepares for the Commonwealths and perhaps her other goals – namely the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 and a World Championship appearance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she shares such sentiments.
“I’d like to think it’s going to be fairly plain sailing now in my swimming career, after all this disruption,” she suggests. “Hopefully I’m not going to have to move again and have all these worries. Now I just need to focus on enjoying it and getting the experience.
“It’s been such a big goal, I’ve wanted to achieve this ever since I was tiny back at Swindon Dolphin.”
Having fulfilled step one of her grand, three-part plan, Gray seems to have been inspired by the sense of injustice she felt at having her place on the Wales team stolen from her at the 12th hour. While the scars of the experience were still noticeable in our conversation, it was apparent that the events of the past year gave her an extra yard as she pushed down the final length in the 200m final.
“Nobody really knew, I didn’t really want to tell anybody. I’m not really one to make a scene and it’s quite personal. I didn’t really want people asking,” she says.
“One girl in the call room – I knew she was just trying to throw me off my game – tried to ask me about it and I said ‘look, I’m not going to speak to you about it now, I’m going to race. Don’t ask me about this’.
“It’s just been very tough and on that last length, as much as it was good to have the feeling of making my family proud, it was also a big point to prove. I had a few people in mind and I wanted to prove to myself and prove to people ‘don’t mess with me’. In the politest way.
“Okay, I’ve had to change nationalities but I still want to get myself on that team and it’s not going to stop me going fast.”