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Representing Ireland at the Olympics, featuring in Game of Thrones and 'the answer' to his problems

Daniel Wiffen reflects on becoming one of the stars of Irish swimming.

Daniel Wiffen represented Ireland at the Olympics last summer.
Daniel Wiffen represented Ireland at the Olympics last summer.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

YOU WON’T find many Irish athletes who, by the age of 20, have both competed at the Olympics and appeared in one of the most popular TV shows of the last 10 years, but Daniel Wiffen belongs in that unique category.

We’ll come to his acting in more detail later, but firstly The42 wants to focus on Wiffen’s experience in swimming and particularly Tokyo.

Born in Leeds, he moved to Northern Ireland at the age of two and grew up near Lisburn, more recently officially becoming an Irish national after gaining dual citizenship.

“My parents never got around to doing it when I moved over in 2003,” he says. “But when I did it, I guess it was because I had been training in Ireland my whole life. I went through all my schooling in Ireland and I was like: ‘It’s definitely the best fit for me in terms of swimming for Ireland as well because I’m Irish.’

“It wasn’t really that hard of a process because my mum’s side of the family are Irish, her maiden name is O’Keeffe.”

As it stands, Wiffen is undoubtedly among the top swimmers in the country. He holds Irish National records in the 800m and 1500m freestyle (Long Course and Short Course, Junior and Senior).

The talented young athlete currently has a place in the prestigious distance training squad at Loughborough University, where he also studies Computer Science. 

At the Swimming Word Cup in Berlin, he secured fourth place and became the first Irish person to go under 15 minutes for the 1500m freestyle.

He will also be hoping to continue the momentum he has accrued of late, as he prepares to compete at the World Long-Course Championships and the Commonwealth Games later this year.

Yet it is Tokyo that has undoubtedly been the biggest moment of his career thus far.

In a sense, Covid and specifically the year-long postponement of the event helped Wiffen, as the ensuing 12 months was crucial for his development and left him in a better position to qualify.

In April 2021, at the Irish Swimming Olympic team trials, he became the first person to achieve the Olympic qualifying standard, paving the way for his Japanese adventure in the summer.

He plays down the suggestion that the experience was spoiled somewhat by the heavy restrictions that were imposed at the event because of the pandemic.

“Seeing as it’s my first one, I can’t really compare it to any other,” he says. “I had as much fun as I hoped I would have had when there was no Covid.

“In the village, I found the restrictions were not bad. You had to wear masks and whatever. But in terms of talking to other athletes, it was fine, you just kept your distance. Then you could meet as many people as you want.

“I suppose you didn’t mix at the start because, in racing, you’re just trying to keep to yourself. But as soon as you finish racing, I know a lot of people on different teams because I train in Loughborough International Training Centre, so I got to chat to them afterwards.”

In the end, Wiffen put in a creditable performance, as he was placed 14th and 20th in the 800m and 1500m freestyle respectively.

“My old coach used to say you don’t qualify just to be there, you qualify to try to improve on what you’ve done. I had a goal of making at least the top 16 at the Olympics. I was going in 30th or whatever. I obviously moved to 14th in the 800. I was happy with the results. I would have liked a bit more — everybody says that — but for my first major senior international in the Olympics, to make a personal best of it and improve my ranking [was satisfying].”

As is often the case with elite athletes, Wiffen found the experience of readjusting back to normal life a challenge after the high of competing at the Tokyo Games.

“I did notice it for at least two to three months after I finished,” he remembers. “I went straight from the Olympics to doing uni work and then going back to uni. So I didn’t really get a break. And then training as well after that.

“We went to a series of World Cup meets after swimming. And I was completely drained after them. I took four or five days off because I thought I needed time and that really helped. I haven’t had any down experiences [since].”

daniel-wiffen-after-winning-the-heat Ireland's Daniel Wiffen after winning the heat at the Tokyo Olympics. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Family support has been and remains vital to Wiffen, as he attempts to build on the lofty standards previously set.

His mother once swam at a high level, as did his older brother Ben, who now coaches in the sport.

“He started swimming at our local club and my parents were like: ‘If he likes it, you may as well try it,’” Wiffen recalls.

“[Later on] my mum was the only parent in the building watching me swim at 5.30 in the morning. She’d drive me to the pool at 5, stay and watch us swim and then bring us to school straight after. And she did that for at least six years of my life.”

On Ben, Wiffen continues: “When he was swimming and I was younger, I was always just trying to beat him. I did it when I was 17. I beat the times he was doing. 

“He lost interest in it when he was around 18 and he was going to uni, I think he was like: ‘This is probably the best time to give it up.’ He thought he wasn’t as good as he wanted to be.

“And he coaches me now when I go home — he’ll ask about my sessions and stuff like that.”

Wiffen is similarly close to his twin brother Nathan, who is also a talented swimmer and with whom he lives and sometimes competes.

“We have a big rivalry. Especially now, he’s starting to do more of my events, whereas he was staying away for a number of years. He’s starting to get into it now.

“I win the majority of the time. But maybe once a year, he’ll take me out in an individual medley or something like that.”

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Being a twin has also helped Wiffen secure acting work when he is not busy swimming.

‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles’ are among the popular shows Daniel and Nathan have both featured in as extras. For such shows, twins are in-demand due to their rarity, and Wiffen enjoys being able to balance performing with competing, even if it is tough mixing the two sometimes.

“It’s one of my passions,” he says. “I still get acting jobs today, but it’s hard to do in terms of putting off training, it has to be worth it. 

“You get a lot more acting jobs being a twin because they love to use you as a double.

“‘Game of Thrones’ was a great experience to be on. Obviously, everybody watches it. Seeing all the sets, the main characters, how it all works, was really cool.

“I’d definitely like to get the bigger roles as well. I guess with swimming, it’s hard to do that because they can take four or five months out of you and out of swimming on a regular basis. Maybe after sport, I’ll have a big role and see how I could do, you never know.”

The greater availability of extra work is far from the only reason Wiffen is thankful that he has a twin brother.

While the level of competition and rivalry between them has become more intense in recent years, the pair’s bond remains as strong as ever.

“It’s one of the best things that could have happened, especially when your brother is such a high-level athlete too — you push each other on,” Wiffen explains.

“When you have a twin, it’s a lot better as well in terms of uni life. Say Nathan is at home, it’s eight o’clock at night and I’m coming back from training, Nathan will have dinner on the table for me when I get in so I can go to bed early for the next morning, and vice-versa. 

“It’s also good to have someone who is the same as you — you can talk about the same issues you are having. Maybe if I’m having a real hard time in training, Nathan will always be there to cheer me up too and I’ll be doing it for him.

“And just living with each other, I’m not sure if you’ve seen our YouTube channel — we film our lives every week and we bounce off each other. I’ve got so many comments from people saying how they love us two together, because we’re so charismatic and stuff like that. We just have so much fun when we’re together.

“It happens a lot where I’m thinking of a song and Nathan might start playing the song on his phone or something like that — weird stuff like that happens. 

“So it’s definitely beneficial. I go to Nathan with most problems. He always has the answer.” 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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