Before the Beep: Inside the Racing World of Rising Distance Star Dan Wiffen

Daniel Wiffen of Ireland competes in the 800m Freestyle Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.

Before the Beep: Inside the World of Rising Distance Star Dan Wiffen

Dan Wiffen has rewritten the Irish records books time and again, and in July, he became the European record holder in the 800-meter freestyle to add to his continental standard in the short-course pool. Fourth in the 800 and 1500 at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Wiffen became the first able-bodied swimmer from Northern Ireland to win a Commonwealth medal when he claimed silver at Birmingham 2022.

Recently, the 22-year-old shared some of his thoughts with Swimming World about his accomplishments as well as his mental preparation before a big race:

What is your biggest swimming accomplishment to date?

Can I pick two?

Breaking the European record in Japan at Worlds in the 800—that’s one of them—and then the other one I’m going to go with is becoming an Olympian in Tokyo.

(European record): I wasn’t really expecting to get a European record in the 800 because I wasn’t really sure how fast I was going to be going into it because I wasn’t that great in it in April at the Irish Trials.

The heats were a bit shaky, but I went a PB in that even though I wasn’t feeling the best. When I went into the final, I was feeling amazing…so really good. When I finished, I saw that I had finished fourth (off the podium)…but then I saw that European record, and I was like, “Wow! I’ve got a four-to-five-second PB!” That was pretty good, and it changed my mindset of the race.

The first time I became an Olympian (Tokyo 2021), I swam the 800, and I think that was probably the most nervous race I’ve ever had. I remember being in the call room just shaking the whole time—but it was (still) pretty fun. Then I went out and swum the 800, and I think I got a PB in that as well…and I think I won my heat, so that made it even more special.

(Qualifying as an Olympian): I went and swam the time in the heats at the Irish Trials, and nobody expected me (to swim that fast): I wasn’t even one of the ones to watch for Irish swimming then.

I’d already gone away to uni—I went the end of August, and our Olympic Trials was the next April—so nobody had really heard from me. I just went a bit quiet, and I wasn’t posting any YouTube videos then. I took a little break so nobody had any idea what I was doing.

I just turned up to Olympic Trials two days before (the meet). I knew in my head I was going to make it, but I didn’t tell anybody else, which made it even more funny because nobody knew.

I went the time, and everybody was really surprised and had to rush around to present me with certificates for making the Olympics!


What’s your typical mental preparation in your hotel room the night before a big race?

If it’s the first race of the meet, I’ll be shaving down. I actually got a choice whether I wanted to share a room or not at the World Championships, and I chose to share because I think you get a bit lonely sometimes if you’re by yourself—and the race can get in your head—so I shared with one of my friends, Conor Ferguson, who is also from Loughborough, which was very helpful.

Most of the time the night before, I just chat all the time. It’s the same as every other night—the only difference would be that I’d be shaving down and chilling and trying not to think about my race because I want to sleep, so I just try not to think too much.

Any particular ritual? Watch a movie? Food?

I used to have a certain type of cereal and stuff like that, but to be honest, I don’t do that anymore. Maybe I NormaTec—the legs that compress and decompress (air compression boots)—that is probably the only thing I do. I wouldn’t watch a movie or anything, I just sit and chat to the person I’m sharing (the room) with.

I’d probably try to eat as much as possible—as many carbs as possible—because the morning of the race, you probably feel a bit sick, a bit nervous, and you’re probably not going to eat as much, but I try to eat as much as possible to fuel yourself for the next day. I usually have pasta, stuff like that.


Do you do a wake-up swim the morning before your race?

If I am in the heats, I just do my warm-up, and if I’m in a final, then, yes, I’ll do a wake-up in the morning.

I had to learn some things at World Champs because I’ve never done double-double in the 8 and 15 before, so I had to learn a lot about recovery. A lot of time, I was doing 2,000s, and I think we narrowed it down to five 400s with various different patterns: pull, kick, drills, stuff like that.

The morning before the race, I maybe did a little aerobic descend—just like 3x100s or 3x200s, descend to a white pace, so that’s a 140 heart rate—nothing really hard. That’d be the only thing I’d do—around 2 kilometers (2,000 meters).

What time do you head to the pool for your final warmup, and what does it consist of?

If we’re going to swim an 8 or 1500, I arrive an hour 45 minutes before the race most of the time. Sometimes it’s before, sometimes it’s after—it really depends on the buses, to be honest. But normally, I aim to leave the hotel two hours before, although it depends on how long the journey is.

My warm-up is basically some easy swimming to start with to get your body moving, and then you go into some descend work and then to some pace efforts—50s-200s pace. Then get out, get your clothes on as fast as possible to keep in the heat, and then get into your suit.

When you’re racing, do you like to stick to your own race or do you feed off the energy of other competitors?

I’d say it depends on the race. Racing at home or the European U23s that have just passed and heats at Worlds, I’m not really thinking about anybody else unless I need to race for the finish—like the 800 at Worlds, where we had four of us in a line, and I had to go to make sure I was going to make it.

But in the final, I feel that was probably my mistake: In the 800, I definitely paced it myself, I made sure I wasn’t going out too fast because those guys go 3:40 in the 400, and I go 44, so they’re going to be able to go out quicker than me. I just tried to stay with them—and my back half is probably one of my best strengths, so I tried to pull it back, but I was too far away, but I still pulled it back…so I’m pretty happy.

The 1500—I think the whole time going through, I have had one set way of swimming it, which is the way I normally swim it. I did that at European U23s and, funny enough, I went quite fast there, which is kind of disappointing.

Basically, I just go out at a good speed—I think my PB pace is like 55.7, so that’s what I went out on at Worlds, and then I decided to sit back at Worlds because after the first 100, I was probably half a body length ahead of Bobby Finke and Ahmed Hafnaoui and half a body length behind Sam Short.

I decided then I didn’t want to push until 500 meters, and then when I started to push at 500, I had to catch so much back. I’ve looked at my splits, and they’re 28.9 and 29.0 in the middle 500…and at European U23s, I held that from the start, and then I dropped off—the toll of travel kind of hit me!

In the race (at Worlds), I wish I’d just gone with what my heart said to do and just hold the splits I knew I’d been able to hold throughout the whole season leading up to the World Champs. I think maybe the moment got (the best of) me, and maybe I just didn’t listen to myself, and I got overwhelmed when I was in the race and didn’t go to my original race plan.



At European U23s, I was like, I’m going to listen to music to see if it makes a difference. To be honest, I just had my earphones in and was like, ‘I just don’t want to listen to music before my race.’ Normally, I just sit there…chill…I normally chat, to be honest…I am pretty friendly with everybody I’m racing, so normally, I talk to people, but mostly they just want to be left alone! So I sit there in silence or try and chat to the person next to me….

Ideal ready room?

I don’t think it really makes a difference, to be honest—the call room. I can’t really think of anything…it doesn’t really matter…any situation.


What’s your overall philosophy on mental preparation?

We work on that a lot. I meet with a psychologist every week, so that is one of the main things I added halfway through this season, and I am going to keep it on until the Olympics definitely…and I think it’s probably the most important part of racing.

In terms of different techniques I do before the race, sometimes I can dream my race before I’ve done it, and most of the time it will probably happen the way I dreamed it—which is kind of weird. I’d say that’s one of the techniques we’ve done a lot—basically visualization—but that’s kind of an extreme level of visualization: dreaming about it.

How has that philosophy evolved over the years?

I think this season I was just trying to get to know more about the mental side because I never really touched on it before, so I didn’t really have an approach before this. I didn’t think about it basically.

To be honest, at Worlds, I wouldn’t even say I did much different to what I’d normally do. That’s what I am going to try and work on next season—try and take a different mental approach going into the races.

What advice would you give to young swimmers?

You don’t have to be the best junior swimmer or the best 20-year-old or whatever. I can give you a great example: My twin—we’re identical—but Nathan is probably a couple of years behind me in terms of swimming ability. I went to the 2019 World Juniors, but I wasn’t that great—I think I came 18th in the 1500, and I’m now fourth at World Champs.

So, really, it doesn’t matter what age you are, and it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good when you’re younger. You can always be a good senior swimmer—you just have to put the work in…. So, that’s what I’d say.

Liz Byrnes is a freelance journalist from Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, covering a range of sports with a main focus on swimming and football. She is Swimming World’s European correspondent.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x