Believe – that is coach Gregor McMillan’s message for Aberdeen pool prodigy Toni Shaw ahead of her Paralympics debut in Tokyo.
Shaw gets her maiden Games under way in the S9 400m freestyle in the early hours of Wednesday, UK time, with an outing in the heats expected to be followed by a medal bid in the final around 8.10am GMT.
The 18-year-old was Team Scotland’s youngest member at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and brought back six medals from the 2019 World Para-swimming Championships in London, so there are high hopes for what might happen in the coming days.
Shaw will also go in the 100m freestyle on August 31, as well as the 100m butterfly on September 2.
McMillan, who is in Japan with Shaw and is currently guiding her through her final preparations for the 400 free, said: “It’s all about confidence for Toni. I think she maybe has a few doubts about how she can do, but she’s physically in the best condition she’s ever been in for delivering in the 400 free.
“She’s just got to be confident about delivering what we know she can. There’s nothing that can physically change how the race will go, it will be about trusting how to map the race out.
“I think she’s set and ready to do the best she can. That’s the key part – it’s not about comparing her to other people, because we just haven’t had anything to gauge that over the last couple of years.
“It’s about her delivering her best self.”
On 400 free tactics, McMillan added: “It’s about making sure she feels fast. but comfortable through the early stages of it.
“She’s had races where she’s gone too hard and fallen away, or gone out way too comfortable. All the practise races we’ve set up over the last little while, she’s been attacking more.
“I’d really like to see her use both races (heat and final). It’s not just about getting into the final. I’d like to see her send a message with how she swims in the heats.
“She’s a quality enough athlete to get through to the final without any real challenge, but it’s about using the heat to really put herself in a positive lane for the final and mindset to say: ‘I’m here to do well’ and hopefully then take it on another step in the final and be ready to fight against the lead girls.”
McMillan: Performances – not medals – the focus despite numbers painting ‘positive’ picture
Shaw goes into the 400 free with a great chance to claim a first medal in her opening Paralympic event.
Her qualifying time of 4:43.20 is the fastest of those beginning their bid in heat one. Only Lakeisha Patterson has gone quicker (4:35.56), with the Australian swimming in heat two.
McMillan is putting the emphasis on Shaw fulfilling her potential, rather than medals, at the Paralympics, despite the numbers showing she is of world-class standard in at the very least the 400 and 100 free.
He said: “In both events, she’s got an opportunity to finish top four. There’s no one five and above who will be in with a shout in those events.
“This competition was never about delivering medals, it was about delivering the best Toni and finishing as strongly as she can. From there, top four can be anything from first through to fourth.
“For me, whatever that finish is, as long as she done as best she can, I’m happy and proud with that.”
However, when pushed for a verdict on Shaw’s medal chances across her three individual events in Tokyo, McMillan added he was feeling: “Positive. Really positive.
“She’s put a lot of things in place to go and deliver, but we don’t talk too much about medals. Get the performance right and hopefully the medal comes as the bonus.”
Aberdeen Aquatics Centre-based McMillan wasn’t initially going to be able to travel to Tokyo with his two Team GB-selected University of Aberdeen Performance Swim Team athletes, Shaw and Turriff’s Conner Morrison – who is swimming in the SB14 100m breaststroke on Sunday, but a late call-up means McMillan can now continue to work closely with his athletes during the Games.
“Some of the coaches were unwell – nothing Covid-related – so they (Team GB) asked last minute, after their holding camp,” McMillan said.
“I’ve joined them since they’ve been in the village. I’m really glad to be out and to get to work with both Conner and Toni.
“It’s beautiful. The actual aquatics centre itself is a phenomenal building, you’ve got a 50-metre pool with a grandstand right around, with another 50-metre facility which will be their swim-down pool.
“Across the road, the guys who are just coming into train have another 50-metre pool, so there’s really been no expense spared for looking after the athletes.”