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Stroke of genius in tough waters

In the first of an occasional series on young sports stars, Roddy Mackenzie looks at how swimmer Mark Branch combines physical training with school work

Mark Branch has learned that swimming is a sport where the hours invested in training are directly related to the success achieved.

The fourth year pupil at Greenwood Academy in Irvine did not learn to swim until he was eight years old, during a family holiday in Canada. These days he is wet behind the ears only because he spends so much time in water, totalling up 18 hours and 50-60km in pools each week.

Before some of his school friends have stirred for their morning newspaper rounds, Mark is at Garnock Pool in Kilbirnie. Three mornings a week he is up at 5.15am for a couple of hours of swimming training before he catches the bus to school at 8.30am.

There are no leisurely lie-ins at the weekends for the 15-year-old either.

On Saturdays Mark is up just after 5am to train at Auchenharvie Pool and on Sundays he is up early for another couple of hours at the Garnock Pool.

His pool training does not stop there: he is back in the water five evenings a week.

Mark also does an hour of circuit training every Thursday evening and supplements that with work in the gym as he seeks to build up his strength.

Few people appreciate the effort that goes in to turning out future Commonwealth and Olympic Games swimmers.

In the past few months, Mark has become the British junior record holder in the 200m breaststroke (long course and short course) and in the 100m (short course) and he still has a few months in the current age band to break his own records.

This year promises to be a big one for Mark, who is aiming for the European Youth Olympic Games in Paris at the end of July.

Already Mark has learned that, in addition to putting in the kilometres in the pool, you have to travel extensively to get the right level of competition. In December, he attended the FINA World Cup meeting in Shanghai (where he broke two of his British junior records) and went on to a British training camp on the Australian Gold Coast.

His long-term ambitions would see him return to both countries as he aims to be in the Scotland team for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and Great Britain team for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Mark is a member of the Scottish elite training squad and gets access to National Lottery funding through the British world potential programme.

He has made such remarkable progress over the past five years that it is hard to believe that he learned to swim so late.

"It was my first swimming teacher who encouraged me to join a club and, after I learned to swim, I went along to the North Ayrshire Amateur Swimming Club when I was about nine or 10," he explains. "I used to only do three sessions a week but the club told me I had a talent and should pursue it.

"I work with my club coach, Sandy Blackwood, as well as attending the Scottish Institute of Sport in Stirling."

Fitting his schoolwork into such a busy schedule has been difficult but Greenwood Academy has been flexible and allowed him time off to go to China and Australia. With eight Standard grades to sit this year, books accompany Mark on all of his swimming trips. When he missed his prelim exams, the school allowed him to sit them when he returned.

"I try to get most of my homework done on Tuesday, which is my rest day from training," he explains. "And I spend a lot of time on my schoolwork at weekends.

"When I was in Australia, I was offered the chance to attend a special school in Southport on the Gold Coast for a couple of years, where I could combine my swimming with my schoolwork. I think it would have cost around pound;1,000 a year, but I would have to travel back for meets and I just felt I was a bit young to take such a step.

"There are much better facilities in Australia and that is why they produce such great swimmers. There are only four long course pools in Scotland - in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and East Kilbride - and it can be a hassle accessing the facilities. In Australia, it is all laid on a plate for the top swimmers."

The programme in Scotland has improved considerably in recent years. Mark gets dietary advice and his training is worked out carefully so that he peaks at competition time.

Mark wants to study architecture and had considered attending Stirling University. However, to accommodate his sporting and academic ambitions he is now considering Loughborough University, which has a strong sporting pedigree. There are also likely to be offers from the United States if he continues his current rate of progress.

For the next few years it will be a balancing act between schoolwork and swimming to ensure he has the right foundations to make his mark in and out of the water.

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