'We're real winners in love' Swimmer Fran Halsall and hockey's Alastair Wilson are Team GB’s happiest couple
22:01 GMT, 27 July 2012
Fran Halsall has a recurring dream of swimming in the Olympic pool. ‘I’m naked except for wearing socks,’ she says. ‘Then I look to the side and I’m racing a Labrador, which is even weirder.’
She sits back and lets out a gale of laughter. Her boyfriend, Alastair Wilson, just smiles.
Fran is one of the British team’s best hopes for Gold at London 2012. She is European and Commonwealth champion, and half of one of the Olympics’ great love stories. Alastair is a hockey player with his own ambitions of winning a medal.
Swimmer Fran Halsall says her love for Alistair helps her drive towards her gold medal
The couple – she bubbly and zany; he calmer and dependable – first met in Beijing four years ago at the close of the last Olympic Games. When the competition is over, the athletes’ village becomes a throbbing mecca for the young and single to make their own fun.
But for Alastair it took perseverance to woo his girl. ‘It was the last evening and there was a bit of a party,’ he recalls. ‘We chatted but that was that. Then we saw each other when we went to the palace to meet the Queen. There was a parade and a night out – and there are differing opinions about what happened. I bought Fran a drink and was nice to her, but she has convinced herself I was incredibly rude.
‘Really, she doesn’t remember anything about the night, but that’s what she thinks. The following year we bumped into each other again. I asked her out but she fobbed me off. I was away quite a bit that summer, then came back and texted her, “Do you want to re-arrange” and she sent one back saying, “Who is this” It’s a good thing I’m persistent – or desperate.’
The pair together at their home in Loughborough, they have two cats, Banks and Bella
But love finds a way, and Fran and Alastair are now together, sharing the highs and lows of their life and competitive sport under one roof with their two cats, Banks and Bella. Fran, 22, has just returned from another gruelling session in the pool and is eating spaghetti in the kitchen of their house on a pleasant new estate on the outskirts of Loughborough, Leicestershire.
She is a larger-than-life character, switching conversation from Aristotle to nail varnish in a flash. She has mixed views on the former, whom she studied for her A-Levels, and loves experimenting with the latter.
She is also growing into one of Team GB’s most recognisable characters. Her laughter is infectious and follows every other comment she makes in the light Scouse accent that has accompanied her journey from Southport, near Liverpool, to Loughborough, where she trains in the University pool. At best she could win three individual Gold medals: in the 50m and 100m freestyle (in which she is ranked No 2 in the world), and the 100m butterfly, as well as two relay Golds.
One Gold, and other medals of any hue, would make her happy and ensure a share of the glory alongside her friend, the trailblazer of British women’s swimming, Rebecca Adlington. The two get on well, talking shoes and shopping.
Fran Halsall after winning her heat of the Women's 50m Freestyle during the British Gas Swimming Championships
Success at Olympic level would be the ultimate testament to Fran’s competitive zeal. Despite being just 5ft 7in, that spirit has allowed her to compete in what she calls the ‘6ft tall club’. But, still, she describes herself as 70 per cent professional athlete, 20 per cent Krispy Kreme addict and 10 per cent rock star. The chances of Alastair, a 28-year-old forward, winning Gold are less certain.
A medal of any colour would represent a successful Olympics for the hockey team, with Australia, Germany, Holland and Spain the chief rivals.
Does life not get stressed with so much sporting energy within those four walls ‘The only stress is that Alastair and I are apart so much,’ says Fran. ‘I’ll go away for three weeks and come back and think, “Oh, yeah, I get to see Alastair and the cats,” but no, it’s just the cats. I know I’ve got them to keep me company.’
Says Alastair, ‘Most of my week is spent training at Bisham Abbey [the National Sports Centre in Berkshire] so I’ll stay there three or four nights a week and be in Loughborough with Fran the other nights. On those days, it means I get up about the same time as Fran needs to be up for her training, between six and seven.
That’s fine, but on Saturdays I have no training and Fran has an early session. She’s up at 5am. That’s not great when you have nothing to do at that time. Once I’m awake I can’t get back to sleep.
‘We’re going away on holiday after the Olympics and we were just talking about what it will be like for two weeks when we’ll be together constantly. We might end up killing each other. It’s been four years since we had a proper break because we’ve been training so hard.’
They plan to spend the time driving from LA to San Francisco, visiting vineyards in the Napa Valley along the way. Until the Olympics are over, alcohol is forbidden ‘except maybe for the odd glass’. It’s a hardship for Fran, a devotee of wine, white especially. Alastair is a health food fanatic, who checks labels and cooks with coconut oil instead of olive oil.
For all their joking of living together yet apart – no talk of marriage yet – they complement each other perfectly
For all their joking of living together yet apart – no talk of marriage yet – they complement each other perfectly. ‘It can get a bit tense when Fran’s trials come around, or when it’s selection time for me,’
Alastair admits. ‘But it’s helpful to have someone who can empathise but isn’t too close to your actual sport. Fran is very competitive, and although she isn’t exactly a nightmare if she doesn’t win, she gets pretty disappointed.’
‘I do get a bit grumpy, don’t I’, muses Fran. ‘You do’, he agrees. ‘But you wouldn’t have got as far as you have if you didn’t hate losing and love winning so much. I don’t like to lose, either, but I feel I have enough other important stuff in my life so it’s not the end of the world.’ Says Fran, ‘If you guys don’t win, I know to leave you alone for 15 minutes so you can have a sulk.’
Fran admits Alastair is the more level-headed of the pair. So she will seek his reassurance in the nervous moments leading up to a competition, with the swimming programme falling in the first week of the Games. He could be involved up until the penultimate day of the Games.
‘I’ll let you speak to me,’ she tells him. ‘We spoke regularly at the Commonwealths in Delhi in 2010 when I wasn’t feeling very well and you looked after me for a bit. Hopefully we’ll be able to see each other. It’s nice to have ordinary, regular things going on. You have this surreal bubble of stuff around you at the Olympics. But I’ve got my Mr Normal – well, you’re not Mr Normal, but a bit of normality in my life – just to bring me back down to reality.
Alastair knows he has big shoes to fill –
those of her father, Andrew, who drove her to all the early-morning
training sessions while she slept beside him in the car
'Even when I had my operation for an ankle injury last year, I’d be throwing things around and he’d be picking them up. He’d just reassure me, not letting my emotions take control of me too much.’
Alastair knows he has big shoes to fill – those of her father, Andrew, who drove her to all the early-morning training sessions while she slept beside him in the car. ‘He’s amazing,’ says Alastair. ‘A Mr Zen, ultra-positive.
'Nothing fazes him. He’s a big reason why Fran is the way she is and is as good as she is. I’m a bit of a pessimist so I have to try to make sure that doesn’t impact on her, especially after all the hard work her dad put in.’
Fran and Alastair both admit to getting nervous watching the other play or swim. So how would they feel, for instance, if Alastair had to take a penalty stroke for Great Britain to win Gold ‘I’d be happy to take one, but I think there would be better people to do it,’ says Alastair.
But Fran, fearful of what she cannot directly control, is not so sure. ‘I wouldn’t be happy for you to take one,’ she insists. ‘I’d have to leave the stadium, not because I don’t think you would score, Al, but because I couldn’t take the build-up to it. It’d be worse than swimming.’