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'Jewel' in the Pool ready to sparkle

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Ollie Williams | 22:09 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

There's never been buzz around a swimming event in Britain like this. But then, there's never been a swimming event in Britain like this.

As night descends over Manchester on Friday, the city's aquatics centre will be illuminated by stars from four countries.

The United States, the superpower of world swimming led by Michael Phelps in his first United Kingdom appearance, take on a European team comprising a host of top British names alongside swimmers from Germany and Italy.

While the firepower on display may be impressive, it's a made-for-TV event at the end of the season, so all the swimmers are talking about fun, not form.

Does that mean we should forget this event in the grand scheme of things? Or can the duel's demob-happy swimmers deliver?

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The reason it matters for British swimming is that it's even taking place.

"The British team is now stronger than it's ever been. This could never have happened a few years ago," Olympic bronze medallist turned BBC commentator Steve Parry told me.

"The British team is very strong indeed, particularly the girls. You've got Gemma Spofforth, Rebecca Adlington, Fran Halsall - these are all big world names. They'll walk into this arena, it's going to be a charged atmosphere, and I wouldn't bet against some extremely fast swimming this weekend."

Adlington agrees. "This is definitely a good thing. It shows swimming is moving forward and our profile has been raised a lot," said the double Olympic gold medallist, a woman whose success in Bejing both crowned the first stage of British swimming's resurgence and kick-started a second push for greater glory.

"We're a good nation at swimming now," she added. "Before, the US would have gone, 'Well, there's no point', but now they think we're pretty good and they're probably worried about us as well. I hope they are."

Britain has no history of international head-to-head competitions like this, but the US holds them at regular intervals, with Australia the usual opponents.

Yet the achievement of attracting the US and staging this event has been eclipsed by a bigger issue before the swimmers even take to the pool: not who will win or how individuals perform, nor even the arrival of swimming machine Phelps, but what the swimmers will wear.

That's because this is the last chance they will have to wear the 2009 edition swimsuits that have caused such controversy.

Made out of special materials which appear to offer a boost in speed that is otherwise beyond reach - hence the unprecedented number of broken records at this year's World Championships in Rome - these suits have now been outlawed by Fina, swimming's governing body.

But the ruling doesn't kick in until 1 January, so the 2009 suits are legal for Duel in the Pool. Some swimmers, like Phelps, say they will use the 2010 model in Manchester, which is slower but will be legal come January, on principle. Others, like Halsall, say they will milk the 2009 suits for all they are worth one last time, in pursuit of victory.

This means Duel in the Pool could be livened up by some freak results. For example, if Phelps wears a 2010 suit but his European rivals opt for hi-tech 2009 versions, he is in real danger of losing. Great Britain's James Goddard, who will go up against Phelps, says his coach has specifically advised him to wear a 2009 suit with that in mind.

Whether you think that's a legitimate method of winning is another matter. And while the swimmers here will enjoy themselves more than they ever would at an Olympics or World Championships, they still want to win.

"I'm a bit more chilled out because it's only a two-day competition and not a major meet, but at the same time I want the most points I can get," is the view of Adlington, while GB team-mate Spofforth, the 100m backstroke world champion who trains in America, is keen to show her training partners who's boss.

"Beating the US would be super-special and will play in the back of my mind all weekend," she said. "Coming fourth in the 200m backstroke at the Worlds was a big inspiration to me. I never want to come fourth again. That name, 'Spof-fourth', has travelled with me." To motivate her, she now keeps a photo of the three women who beat her as the background on her computer desktop.

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"It's fun," fellow Briton Halsall admitted to me, "and it's a bit different because as British swimmers we don't get much chance to take part in duel meets. But most of the British team are quite competitive and want to win anyway. Having the best people in the world on our doorstep in Manchester makes it more exciting and really raises the profile of swimming."

And that brings us on to the sheer spectacle. Manchester held the Short Course World Championships last year, but even that didn't get the treatment and build-up Duel in the Pool has received. The finishing touches to the pool are being made as I write, with spotlights racing across the water, the music of Florence and the Machine filling the arena, a big screen ready to display the points tally, and thousands of seats waiting to be filled. British swimmers rarely get a stage like this in front of their own fans.

"Manchester put on a great show for the 2008 World Short Course and that was my first real buzz of a home championships," said 50m backstroke world champion Liam Tancock. "I was getting out of the pool with people chanting my name. I'd like to see that here - the Brits getting behind the European team - and I think that's what we're going to see. I love the lights and the music, it's more fun and more lively."

"It's going to be so noisy poolside," said another Brit, Hannah Miley. "Everyone is going to be screaming their hearts out. It's good to get the crowd involved. It makes the atmosphere electric, and my family are going to be glued to the TV screen at home."

In record books and biographies years from now, will the events of the next two days feature much? Probably not, but that isn't the point. What the duel offers is some of the world's top swimmers putting on a show. There are no heats, just finals, so every swim counts. Swimmers earn five points for a win, three for second place and one for third, with seven-point bonuses for victory in the relays. Organisers want to see crowds - and swimmers - tense up as the points tallies mount on the big screen. It's an event made to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

And who will come out on top? Most people here, if pressed, would say it's hard to see how Europe can snatch this. They are missing a host of big names like Federica Pellegrini, Britta Steffen and Jo Jackson, whereas the only casualty in a US team packed with strength in depth is Ryan Lochte. But the European team haven't given up hope.

"The American team have brought their A game. They've brought everyone they took to Worlds, so it'll be a difficult ask for the European team," admitted Halsall. "But with the quality of swimmers we have now, we stand a good chance if we get stuck in and make the most of it. We've got a good group and I think we can ruffle some feathers."

Watch the live on 18 December - 1900-2100 GMT, BBC Three and 19 December - 1345-1630 GMT, BBC One. All the action is on the BBC Sport website (UK only).


  • Comment number 1.

    "Made out of special materials which appear to offer a boost in speed that is otherwise beyond reach"
    - whoa, whoa, don't get too technical on us or anything. Who says the BBC is dumbing-down? I think kids writing blogs is far better than journalism.

    And don't be too quick to swallow this stuff about the Duel taking place because Britain are now on the swimming map. British Swimming are looking to host competitions in the lead-up to 2012, that's why it's happening; they probably just never bothered too much to try and stage something like this before. A combination of nations like this would always be likely to provide at least as tough a test as Australia on their own, so there's no reason to think the US wouldn't have been up for it. After all, while we now have a number of good women, distance freestyle is the only area on the men's side where a British man, or even an E-stars man, would have had a decent chance of making the US team for the World Championships.

    Maybe stick to the archery and ice hockey son.

  • Comment number 2.

    Not too much point getting technical over the swimsuits in this blog - the explanations about precisely what the suits are and how they work have been done to death. If you're a fan of swimming, you will know the finer points. If you're not, then, with one or two meets left for anybody to use them, it's a bit late to worry - you just need a basic summary of what they do.

    You are of course right that British Swimming are keen to hold events like this in the run-up to 2012, but the arrival of Phelps et al on these shores for the first event like this is a big deal for the sport. As for how the men match up, that's something I'll write about in more detail soon.

  • Comment number 3.

    Looking forward to reading future articles on the strength of the men and women's teams...think Liam Tanncock would be first to shout out against felixtzu's suggestion. Nice to see the BBC putting some swimming on the front of the BBC sport pages BUT some more TV airtime would be good, we shouldn't be having to wait for the 'celebs' of swimming to come to make the BBC interested. We get full day coverage of some very mediocre athletics meets (not just international events with few British finalists but at club level within the UK). Maybe some TV input and help in organisation of National speedo league finals or BUSA finals would make for an interesting slot...even if just a one hour highlights show (not at midnight or on red button or BBC 3 but swimming's own version of match of the day ;-) ). Also, with the competition emerging within the British team for spots in certain events then the British championships, olympic trials etc. can now bring very close, entertaining races with British, European and even world records. TV time is something all swim fans have wanted for a while but possibly now something we can more realistically expect and request??

  • Comment number 4.

    "After all, while we now have a number of good women, distance freestyle is the only area on the men's side where a British man, or even an E-stars man"

    Liam Tancock, Micheal Rock, arguably James Goddard if he had a full season, Chris Walker Hebborn at a push and E-Stars like Feldwehr, Giorgetti, Facci and even Magnini could certainly give any of the US lot a push based on the past year (as questionable as all results have been in 2009).

    Let's be honest it started in 2003 because the US were sick of everyone questioning their dominance based on the performances of a talented few in OZ, having dispatched that rivalry they're probably looking for something a bit more challenging. Let's hope they do it again before 2012, and get the French or a few Eastern European nations involved next time!

  • Comment number 5.

    Ollie - Haven't really got a grip on the swimming world but i'm a big fan of Rebecca Adlington after her amazing Olympics. However, how is she considered in the swimming world? Is she considered the best? After her performance at the Worlds this year, are there questions over her ability or is the general feeling that she is young and too inexperienced to deal with this huge pressure?

    Or is it simply down to the suit she was wearing?

  • Comment number 6.

    CambDJJ and Kpeanuts42 - Liam Tancock is certainly one person I've spoken to about the strength of Britain's men and, as you'd imagine, he's pretty sure in his views. The likes of Fran Halsall and Becky Adlington have also shared their thoughts. Once I've seen how everyone performs this weekend, I'll go into that a bit more on the blog.

    Joe - Adlington is certainly a highly-respected swimmer, and you have to be at least among the best to win any Olympic gold medal, let alone two. Moreover, she has been made captain of the European team, so they clearly rate her. That said, in her own words 2009 hasn't been her greatest year, and again that's something I've spoken about with her - there'll be more on the blog on Saturday. It involves a dog named Daisy.

    The suit question is an interesting one. As you point out, she didn't bother with the ultra-fast 100% polyurethane suits which did all the record-smashing in Rome (although her suit still had some panels made of the same material). That probably did have some effect but it's not an excuse she would hide behind, and no matter who chooses which suit over the next couple of days, she will be a big worry for the US in her events.

  • Comment number 7.

    CambDJJ: "think Liam Tanncock would be first to shout out against felixtzu's suggestion"

    - Tancock to get in the top two at US nationals, against the likes of Peirsol, Grevers, and Thoman; it would be quite unlikely. The other British men mentioned would have less chance in their events. That's not to be negative, just realistic.

  • Comment number 8.

    Televised sporting events like this are great - when are the BBC going to invest (comparatively miniscule amounts) in more such events for other "minority" sports like table tennis, squash, basketball, etc? At the very least they can be shown on BBC Three/Four/HD which currently are only able to find half a day's worth of programmes.

  • Comment number 9.

    Brilliant, swimming on TV, love it. Just returned from NZ to the UK & soooo happy to see my sport on TV. Had no idea it was on, so am about to sit down & watch with interest. Thanks BBC more minority sports please :D

  • Comment number 10.

    I agree swimming is one of the best minority up and coming sports in Uk at the moment. GB came 3rd overall in the WORLD Champs in Rome, behind the US and Australia, the two biggest swimming nations in the world. the BBC should devote more time to showing swimming events as it does in athletics, where British finalists are much less common at international meets.
    As for the duel meet, i think the E-stars didnt stand a realistic chance of matching the US team. Countries such as France, Hungary, croatia and the netherlands should be involved to make the competition a real exciting prospect.


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