‘I got put straight in at the deep end... I was the worst swimmer there’: How Daniel Wiffen went from bottom of the class to top of the world

Two-time World champion and PTSB Team Ireland ambassador Daniel Wiffen returns to Irish waters following World Championship success in Doha. PTSB is the title sponsor of Team Ireland for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Paris this summer. Picture by INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Two-time World champion and PTSB Team Ireland ambassador Daniel Wiffen returns to Irish waters following World Championship success in Doha. PTSB is the title sponsor of Team Ireland for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Paris this summer. Picture by INPHO/Dan Sheridan (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan/©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

FROM bottom of the class to top of the world, Daniel Wiffen’s remarkable rise from swimming’s backwaters sometimes needs placed into context.

Just last month the 22-year-old became the first Irish athlete to win a World Championship medal of any colour when he claimed gold in the men’s 800m freestyle, followed by an impressive 10 second victory en route to the 1500m title.

That stunning performance came off the back of a successful 2023 in which he unexpectedly demolished the long-standing short-course world record in the 800m, further cementing his growing reputation as one of the sport’s emerging stars.

The knock-on effect? More people talking, more people looking, more people asking for pictures. And he is revelling in the new-found fame success has brought – mostly.

“I’m okay with it, but I think I stopped someone following me into the toilet the other day,” he smiled during a PTSB press call on Thursday.

“They were like ‘oh, can I get a photo?’ and I was like ‘yeah... but do you mind if you wait for a bit?’”

Wiffen life has changed but not so much, the Magheralin man insists, that he has changed with it.

With the days ticking down to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer, so expectation continues to pile on Wiffen’s broad shoulders. Far from being inhibited by that pressure, though, he embraces every last bit of it.

“I feel like I always wanted to be a world champion and a world-record holder, and I feel like I kind of expected it...”

Yet, not so long ago – or so it seems to him anyway – gracing this stage could hardly have seemed further away, because Wiffen’s was not the conventional case of protégé making good on potential.

“No, I was a terrible – well I can’t really say terrible – but I wasn’t a very good junior swimmer.

“I made the European Junior Championships, it was my first competition when I was 18, so I’d say it was from then that I started making competitions.

“But I was nowhere near… I had no national medals when I was younger. I would be in the final but not doing anything special. I’d say the majority of the people at the top level at the moment are medalling at World juniors, European juniors, and I came 14th at world juniors.

“It’s still pretty good but it’s nothing at the standard of what everybody else is.”

When he moved to Loughborough University in 2020, everything started to change.

Nowadays coaches and training partners say they have never seen anybody like him, but back then Wiffen had serious ground to make up.

“When I moved over to Loughborough I got put straight in at the deep end.

“I was the worst swimmer there, thrown in and racing automatically in a squad with a World champion, an Olympic champion and as soon as you get put into that environment you kind of have to embrace it, and join in with it.

“I really enjoy it there... I think it’s because everybody has a shared goal. I mean, if you’re not an Olympian at Loughborough, it’s kind of weird, which is funny to say because we don’t really have that in Ireland in the swimming programmes.”

14 February 2024; Daniel Wiffen of Ireland reacts after winning the Men's 800m freestyle final during day four of the World Aquatics Championships 2024 at the Aspire Dome in Doha, Qatar. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Sportsfile
Daniel Wiffen celebrates after winning the Men's 800m freestyle final at the World Aquatics Championships in Doha last month. Picture by Sportsfile (Ian MacNicol / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

So how does he explain the rapid improvements in a relatively short space of time? Physiologically, he wasn’t predicted to exceed national level. Wiffen has been working with the same physiologist since he was 15 and, after sweeping the boards in Dubai last month, couldn’t resist a playful nibble.

“I went up to him and I was like ‘what do you think now?’”

Instead, he believes, it all comes down to one thing.

“Technique - my coach now told me my technique was horrible when I joined Loughborough, and he could understand how I could jump so much when he saw…

“I think we’re going to try to put this out there, but we’ve got a video from when I started, they filmed the way I started, doing my 50 freestyle or whatever. If you look at that, compared to my technique now, it’s like a completely different swimmer.

“That’s one of the main reasons for this progression.”

The motivation to succeed didn’t leave him, no matter what stage of development he was at, no matter how far behind. Wiffen always felt he would get there, but that was only ever part of it.

“I think it’s more that I will put 100 per cent into everything, and I’ve learned that from looking at my training partners.

“I’ve always looked up to them because they were obviously big-time swimmers, before I even joined so I knew who they were. I think even just going for them and chasing them made my mindset completely flip when I went to Loughborough.

“That’s what I wanted to achieve and it changed my whole perspective of how to do so. I think I’ve always had these really high goals of what I wanted to do.

“I guess my self-belief just comes from my training and basically every person I train with has told me they’ve never seen anyone faster, never seen someone work as hard so I’m just taking all the compliments my training partners give me, take them on board and try to perform on the day.

“Maybe it makes me a bigger target, but you’ve got to embrace it. If you’re going to be at the top you’re going to have a target on your back, and my goal is just not to get beaten.”