THERE was a time not so long ago when Emma Russell thought the peak of her swimming career was going to be competing in the Scottish Age-Group Championships.

Now, though, the 17-year-old  is being talked about as having the potential to push her way into Team GB for the Tokyo Olympics this summer after emerging as one of Scotland’s most promising talents.

For someone who has only been in the sport for six years, she admits being talked about as a potential Olympian is

“It’s pretty weird to have people talking about me and the Olympics. My parents find it really strange too. They don’t come from a swimming background so it’s crazy to them that I’m being talked about like this,” she says. “It’s really exciting to be even mentioned though.

“When I was younger, like most swimmers I dreamt about making an Olympic team and so of course I’d love to make the team this summer but I’m not making a big deal about it because that would add so much pressure.

“I’d be pretty young to qualify for Tokyo, but on the other hand, you can qualify at any age if you’re good enough.

“I’ll just keep plugging away at training and so if it comes, it comes and that would be amazing.”

Russell specialises in the 100m and 200m freestyle and throughout her years as a junior, won a raft of Scottish titles, set a number of Scottish and British age-group records and won European Junior silver as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay team.

Had the Olympics gone ahead as planned last summer, it would almost certainly have come too early for Russell. But the extra year she has been afforded as a result of the pandemic has given her time to mature and the opportunity to make a change in her training that will hopefully push her to the next level.

Russell spent her junior career at Hearts Swim Club and was planning to switch to University of Stirling when she begins her degree at the university in September. However, during the first lockdown last year, she decided to take the plunge a year early  and so has spent the last few months settling into her new training base in Stirling. One of the major benefits has been the calibre of swimmers she is now training alongside every day.

With the likes of Olympic medallist Duncan Scott, Commonwealth champion Ross Murdoch and European medallist Kathleen Dawson now her training partners, Russell cannot believe her luck and she is in no doubt of the benefit it will bring.

“Being able to train with swimmers of this quality is amazing – they’re literally some of the best in the world,” she says.

“When I first started training with the squad, it was pretty surreal because when I was younger, I’d watch the likes of Duncan Scott get World and Olympic medals and so to be training with him now is pretty crazy.

“It’s been brilliant to see how they all train, what their attitude is like and their effort levels every day. Seeing their dedication is really motivational. 

“They’ve been role models to me growing up and I think I’ll always look at them like that in some ways.”

Just like every other swimmer in the country, Russell had an extended period out of the water during last year’s lockdown but she was given a boost with the news she was being included in British Swimming’s World Class Programme, as well as Scottish Swimming’s senior gold squad.

Her return to the water was welcome and while it took her a few weeks to get back to feeling like her old self, she is now happy with the shape she is in.

Competitive opportunities may have been scarce over the past year but finally Russell can look forward to getting her teeth into an important meet.

At the start of April, the British Championships will take place in London and will double as the Olympic trials. As yet, Russell has not swum the qualifying time for Team GB but with both individual and relay spots up for grabs, the Edinburgh sprinter is relishing the opportunity to test herself against the best Britain has to offer.

World and European medallist Freya Anderson is Britain’s best female freestyle sprinter and while Russell admires the Englishwoman, she is also quick to point out she will not be overawed but be giving it her all in an attempt to compete with the more experienced swimmers on the start-list.

“I can’t wait till trials. I’m really looking forward to getting back competing,” she says. “I’ve raced these girls a few times before so I know what it’ll feel like at the British. 

“They’re still role models to me but the saying ‘if you’ve got a lane, you’ve got a chance’ is so true. If you’re in the race, you’re in with a shout and so you have to just go for it, don’t let the occasion and who you’re racing get into your head.

“I’ll just put all that hard work I’ve done in training into racing and see where that takes me.”