Conor Ferguson's big move boosts chances of Tokyo glory
Teenager Conor Ferguson has been handed a golden opportunity to take his swimming career to the next level after securing a scholarship to the prestigious Ellesmere College in Cheshire.
Conor, a European junior championship silver medalist last month in Hungary, just missed out on qualification for the Rio Olympics by a fraction of a second and now has the long term goal of not only making it to Tokyo in four years time but also to a backstroke final.
The 16-year-old, who has enjoyed great success with Larne Swimming Club under the guidance of head coach Peter Hill, will link up with new coach Alan Bircher who has a very strong group of international junior swimmers with the same goals as Conor.
Indeed the slogan on their website states: "Sport is a contest fought on the battleground of the body, the mind and the heart. It teaches vital self-knowledge as it happens and lessons which endure all life long. This is what defines its value."
Dad Peter believes his son's decision has come at just the right time in his development as he seeks to continue his progression up the international junior ladder and also smoothly make the transition into full-time senior swimming.
"Conor believes he needs to make this move and after speaking to Alan Bircher he was very confident that it was the right place for him. Alan had spotted Conor at the European juniors so he knew all about him when he spoke. It's a great opportunity for him," said Peter.
Conor, whose Irish senior record for the 100m backstroke was broken earlier this week by Shane Ryan in Rio, will almost certainly spearhead the Northern Ireland swimming team's campaign at the Commonwealth Games in two years time on Australia's Gold Coast.
The 16-year-old is relishing the opportunity of having his education dovetail with a stringent training regime all on the one campus.
"This is something that I have been thinking about since Christmas and it's a move I feel I have to make. The pool is 500 metres from the boarding house, the food hall 300 metres away - everything I need will be there including a nutritionist which will be another step up in my career," said Conor, who starts Ellesmere next month.
"It's going to take me about six weeks to get used to it, to the different type of training, but I believe it can take me to a good level at the Commonwealth Games where I can hopefully medal.
"Larne Swimming Club and my coach Peter Hill have been very good and I'm very thankful for all that I have achieved with them. Now I feel I need to go to a set-up that you can't get anywhere else in Ireland yet.
"I see it as going to a swimming boot camp. It will be swim, school then swim or swim, school then gym and that's it.
"The school has already produced some very good swimmers and they have people there with the same goals and desire as I have so I think that will be good for me."
Conor has, naturally, been transfixed by the competition in the Olympic pool, drawing inspiration from the exciting British medal winning performances as well as the greatest of all time, Michael Phelps.
"Adam Peaty winning the 100m breaststroke showed you what can be done and of course watching Phelps has been amazing. He's come back and shocked everyone again," he said.
"I want to be there in four years time in Tokyo making my own mark on the Olympics," added Conor, whose major focus over the next 12 months will be on European and World junior championships as well as a place at the World seniors.