PARALYMPIC champion Josef Craig has become the latest member of a blossoming group of teenagers at Sunderland Swimming Club.
As the Echo’s Chris Young reports, Craig is now among several swimmers at the Aquatic Centre who have high hopes of competing at the 2016 games in Rio-de-Janeiro.
PARALYMPIC gold medalist, double world champion and world record holder.
He even had MBE after his name before he’d turned 16.
Josef Craig is a teenager with some heavyweight credentials.
But almost two years on from becoming the youngest British gold medallist at the London games, Craig remains on a mission.
Complacency? Not a jot of it. Despite his phenomenal success over the last two years, Craig oozes focus as he chats poolside at the Sunderland Aquatic Centre.
The 17-year-old shows almost scant regard for what he has already achieved in his brief career. All he is eyeing now is the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and the championships leading up to that.
“I just want to improve from 2012 because that’s the only way I’m going to be able to stay where I am in the world,” said Craig, who won gold in the 400metres freestyle S7 category in London.
“I’ve really got to just grit my teeth, be strong and I’m sure I can achieve what I want.
“A lot of people say it is harder to stay at the top, but you can’t think of it that way.
“I just think, look, you’re a swimmer, this is what I do. I just have to train hard.
“Rio is the main goal, but obviously there are competitions in between like European Championships that you do have to focus on.
“I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.
“I want the world to know that I am the best across years and different competitions.
“That allows me to keep my focus and keep motivated and keep pushing through that pain barrier. You never know your limits until you test them.”
The decision of Jarrow’s Craig to leave hometown club South Tyneside and move to Sunderland last month demonstrates that determination to keep progressing.
Craig says he had a growing feeling of being “unsettled” and needed to make a change.
It’s a feather in the cap for Sunderland to have Craig on board, but highlights the growing reputation of the elite group at the Aquatic Centre under the tutelage of head coach Danny Thompson.
The facilities help, but the training programme is beginning to reap rewards and has the potential to achieve even more over the next few years.
Craig is now one of three members of the group - along with Matthew Wylie and World Championship bronze medalist Nicole Lough - likely to be part of the GB Paralympic squad in Rio.
There is also double British junior champion Adam Taylor, 17, currently in the national top 10 senior rankings for the 50m butterfly, who has a very real chance of forcing his way into the Olympic squad.
And Craig is in no doubt that being among a cluster of bright prospects - all of whom are in their late teens - is beneficial both individually and collectively.
“We’re all a similar age and on the same wavelength. I’m really pleased I’ve got this opportunity to train with some great athletes,” said Craig, who will compete in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle in next month’s European Championship trials.
“We’re all working for the same goals really - to be the best in our respective fields and respective strokes.
“To be in this environment with a lot of athletes going through the same things as me and trying to achieve the same goals, it makes it a lot easier to train and get in that mindset of doing the best you can and achieving the best you can.
“I’ve really seen a lot of improvements in my swimming.
“I feel a lot stronger in the water; more comfortable.
“I just feel better in general and a lot more focused going into European trials, which is where I need to be.”
Even though he is only 17, Craig boasts the know-how of finishing on top of the podium at major championships.
And head coach Thompson believes that can rub off on Craig’s team-mates, whose experience is largely limited to the junior ranks.
“Obviously, Josef is the current gold medallist from London so he brings great pedigree to the group,” said Thompson.
“The experience that Josef has gained and the steep learning curve since London that he’s been on, has turned him into a well-rounded young man and athlete.
“Just having somebody to talk to and to draw upon those experiences for the other two (Lough and Wylie) is invaluable really.”
Thompson’s group is now 20-strong, 16 of which are in the top 10 in the country for their respective ages.
With the Commonwealth Games and European Junior Championships coming later this year, and several of the club’s swimmers on the road to Rio, it’s a fascinating period for a training group that has only been together for three years.
Thompson sees himself as a project manager-esque figure, as he brings together nutritionists, physiotherapists and strength and conditioning experts to give the swimmers the best chance to make their mark on the national stage.
Now, his challenge is to ensure that progress is maintained through their teenage years and onto the senior level.
“The depth of the group is really pleasing,” added Thompson.
“We’re in a position now where we can actually be quite selective about the athletes who are coming in to train with the group.
“It’s about are they going to add value to the group dynamic? Are they going to enhance what we’ve already got? It’s not just a case of playing a numbers game. It really is about quality.
“The next two years are going to be exciting times both for me and the athletes, but certainly very challenging and demanding.
“It’s such a gruelling and demanding sport and it takes them such a long time to get to the situation where they can produce what we would call really fast swimming.
“That’s in their senior years.
“The transition for a youth athlete to being a senior one takes a period of time.
“You can have youth athletes who are very successful who then go into the wilderness for a little while, while they get that maturation and change physically.
“It’s a real trick to keep them engaged all the way through and then opening their minds up to what it’s all about.”