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Are British medal hopes in American hands?

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Ollie Williams | 21:54 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

If Gemma Spofforth wins a gold medal for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games, you could argue the United States will deserve a thank-you note.

The 100m backstroke world champion and world record holder set the fourth-fastest time in the world this year to reach the event's semi-finals at the British Championships, in Sheffield, on Tuesday.

That despite admitting she is working "off fumes" following a competition she values more than anything else this year: the NCAA Championships in America.

Forget British trials, the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games. Leading the University of Florida Gators to a wafer-thin victory in the fiercely-contested US collegiate championships has made Spofforth's year, before 2010 has even begun for many British swimmers.

For the past four years, the 22-year-old has lived, studied and trained in Florida, feeding off the unique intensity of American university swimming. It is an experiment British swimmers have tried before, to varying degrees of success, but it is coming good with Spofforth.

Is America the way forward? Should British swimmers be on the next flights and parking themselves in the US for the next two years? Should swimming in Britain learn from its US equivalent? Or does Britain not need any help to rule its own pool in 2012?

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BBC Sport's Nick Hope meets Gemma Spofforth in the United States

"I've already accomplished what I wanted to do this year," Spofforth, who grew up around Portsmouth, admitted to me as the British Championships got under way.

For most British swimmers, these six days of trials will shape their year. Places in the British squad for August's European Championships, and the various home nations' teams for October's Commonwealth Games in Delhi, could hinge on performances here.

Spofforth wants to do well but, for her, 2010 is already a success. She explained why: "Over in America we have the NCAA Championships, which are one of the biggest things an athlete can accomplish in the US.

"As a team, the University of Florida just won the national championships, which is something we haven't done in 28 years, and it's only the second time Florida has ever won it. I enjoyed that as much as, if not more than, my world record last year."

University tournament wins in Britain do not eclipse world records, but the NCAA is a world away from the British model. NCAA stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, an organisation which pulls together 40,000 student athletes across the US, competing in 23 sports, the vast majority of them Olympic.

"Whenever I try and explain it to anybody here in Britain, it's hard for anyone to understand the emotions we went through," continued Spofforth.

"It came down to the last relay. There was an amazing atmosphere. If anyone on the team had done something slightly different - been slightly worse in one event - we would have been second. It's one of the most amazing feelings I've ever had."

Gemma Spofforth at 2009's World ChampionshipsSpofforth and prosper: the 22-year-old became a world champion in Rome last year. Photo: Getty Images

All this happened just days before the British trials, so Spofforth - who spoke with laughter in her voice throughout - understandably has her mind elsewhere, admitting she is struggling to think about events in Sheffield.

"It's going to be very, very tough," she said. "It's something I am capable of, it's just going to be a case of working off of fumes and doing as much as I can to make the Commonwealths, then going back to the US to prepare for them."

And that's the thing - this is a flying visit for Spofforth. Back in the States, she captained the Florida women's team in regular duel-style meets against top rivals, while fellow Gators have included the likes of US star Ryan Lochte. America has taken over her life and work. "I've grown to be part of the family," she said.

This is the end of a gruelling four years for Spofforth, more than the beginning of a new season. Her coach in Florida, Gregg Troy, believes moving there turned her career around.

"Gemma came here at a little 'down spot' in her career, did a great job of getting things together and now she's an inspiration to everyone," Troy told the BBC.

"The entire environment [of the NCAA and American collegiate sport] is exciting. There's a tremendous following on campus for everything. It's a dynamic where you can go on with other aspects of your life and still be a great competitive athlete.

"It's a heritage of high expectations and international aspirations, and the British swimmers here had a unique scenario for us. They're very high-quality athletes, highly motivated, and they add a tremendous dynamic to the team. The team feeds off them and they feed off the team."

Spofforth's success in the US - and the American team's glory as a whole, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where the US won 34 of 104 medals on offer) and last year's Worlds (where they won six more gold medals than any other country) - has not gone unnoticed in Britain.

British butterfly record holder Jemma Lowe is now based in Florida alongside Spofforth, telling the BBC: "At the Olympics, every time Americans win and do so well, you think: 'What are they doing over there?' So I spoke to Gemma and it's gone on from there."

It isn't just the culture of American swimming that proves tempting - there is a wider history beyond that, involving a piece of legislature called Title IX, which governs gender equality in many aspects of US life, including collegiate sport.

Title IX - which remains controversial to some - demands that NCAA universities devote equal attention, and offer the same opportunity, to both genders when it comes to sport. That doesn't necessarily mean financial parity (although in many cases, it does), but it does mean every women's sporting programme at a US university has to offer all the facilities, chances and support the men are getting - and vice versa.

That has resulted in a funding level that women's sport would doubtless not have enjoyed otherwise, and supplies NCAA women's swimming with the resources to match its other benefits.

Florida Gators fansFlorida Gators fans in trademark orange-and-blue outfits. Photo: Getty Images

Not that Britain's women are bereft of support themselves, especially having drawn plenty of attention - and government funding - on the back of Rebecca Adlington's success in the pool at Beijing 2008.

And Adlington is one of several examples which show you don't have to go to America to win medals. It is still perfectly possible to train in Britain and become the world's best.

So, given she made the conscious decision to cross the pond, does Spofforth feel British Swimming should be learning any lessons from the States? She has an interesting answer which places the focus not on facilities, but fans.

"My coaches at home have been able to do really good things with me, although the facilities out here help the coaches a little bit more," she explained.

"I don't really know if it's a case of what the UK can do, rather than what the crowd [back home] can do to change.

"In the US, the crowd stand there and shout the whole way through. I was like, 'Wow'. Every person in the crowd is invested in one team or another. But it's not a rivalry where you're going to beat people up, it's a rivalry where you're having fun with it."

Coach Troy told the BBC he has already shared tips with British officials in the run-up to 2012.

"We've had some people from Loughborough here, so we get to exchange some ideas with them which is a real plus," he said.

"Britain have some scientific aspects to approaching things that are really good, and the athletes bring those things back."

Swimming in the US has plenty to offer, but the decision of Spofforth and others to train there does not mean Britain produces inferior swimmers. The two countries offer different systems, and that represents a healthy choice of contrasting lifestyles and environments for budding Olympic swimmers. Pick the one you like the most.

For Spofforth, though, the hard work starts now. The NCAA wraps its athletes up in a competitive fervour, which is a huge boost while you're there, but brings those leaving the family down to earth with a bump.

"Out in the States I couldn't have been a professional until I finished my collegiate career, which I just have in the best possible way," she explained.

"Now I have to work out where I go for the next two years. I'm a Florida Gator for life, and will be supporting my college team, but I can't race or train with them."

She concludes, to the sound of mock weeping: "I've got to figure out how to be a professional swimmer and not a Gator any more."

Figuring that out correctly is what now stands between Spofforth and gold in 2012.


  • Comment number 1.

    That's a really interesting blog Ollie. It's a shame that our universities don't on the whole offer as much sporting opportunities like the North American counterparts do. I think that would aid some of the younger sportsmen and women further themselves, however to impliment that now would cost an awful lot of money, which is in short supply right now.

    It would also take a while to really start to show any results, but the NCAA is a major sports body in the US, and most of it's bigger sporting competitions generate huge audiences at the event and on TV. I can almost hear the complaints now, from people moaning why we are being shown student football/rugby etc, though of course we do get the boat race, which generates it's own set of complaints every year.

    Still thanks for this blog, from yet another sport that's ideal for television, but often only gets shown either at the Olympic's or Commonwealth (yes I know we had the World Championships shown last year, but that was only on the back of Rebecca Adlington's success at the Olympic's).

  • Comment number 2.

    Good blog Ollie not just in a swim specific way but a cultural way too.

    My daughter is nearly 11 and the interclub, league and schools meets are very good for individual development and competition. How that progresses through to schools and university in the UK and provided the intensity for future champions is worth understanding. For those in it for the long haul...

    Not many secondary schools have the facilities so I guess it is down to the excellent clubs and volunteers in the teenage years.

    I notice C4 do cover junior athletics and while people may compain about sport (occasionally) hogging BBC airtime (unlike Soaps) an early morning programme to promote youth (abled & disabled) competition in this country (Junior Sports Show) maybe mot be as big as the NCAA but would promote grassroots sport and an active lifestyle.

    The fact that our national competition (in an sport)is hidden away online rather than on mainstream TV is a crime.

  • Comment number 3.

    Apologies my last line should read (in any sport)...

  • Comment number 4.

    Very interesting blog. I think the comments above highlight the main difference.... media exposure. In the USA, exposure of university level as well as national trials etc has led to greater interest, more sponsorship and more money. This has in turn acted as a catalyst to the implementation of world class, swimming facilities at almost every university.

    In the UK we show crystal palace athletic meets at national and not just international level and yet highlights of Swimming nationals are (and this is actually progress) hidden under 'other sports' despite containing more gold medalists and 2012 prospects. I hope that the BBC decides, as it has with cycling, that a more prime time slot can be supplied to Swimming during major competitions even if just a half hour daily update or a hour or so towards the end of the week to summarise the finals, especially with an increasingly world class field racing each other for a limited number of qualifying spots.

    Fingers crossed for the future and that the BBC take up this mantle and help secure the future of a sport producing some of the most promising Olympic athletes.

  • Comment number 5.

    The American collegiate system is a veritable production line of world-class athletes. A scholarship to one of the American universities has to be a smart move for many young athletes in this country, especially potential Olympians.

    Sadly, it simply could not be replicated here. The Americans are very lucky in having a highly competitive focus for young athletes, but we don't have those structures or the fierce fan allegiances to the local team. This all starts very early, with the community supporting the local high-school team. Replicating this would take a huge rethink in sport in this country, bringing coaches out of the clubs and into schools. It's mind-boggling even to contemplate such changes. And even if it could work, could you imagine Premiership clubs waiting till a footballer is a 21-year-old established college football star before bidding for him in a draft?

    Well, we can dream...

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi all. Thanks for the very high calibre of comment. My readers know their onions, this pleases me greatly.

    Leia28 - there is much more TV coverage of student sport in the US, but even then that coverage has its limits. American football and men's basketball are the big draws. The rest are still left battling for comparative scraps in much the same way as some UK sports probably feel. And TV coverage in any country only ever reflects wider public demand. If the BBC felt more viewers would be served by showing British trials on BBC One than whatever *is* on BBC One this week, then the swimming would be on TV, simple as.

    Which leads me on to CambDJJ. Media exposure is a difference but demand, as I say, is what fuels media exposure. TV companies give people what they want, essentially. You *could* argue that TV companies sometimes tell people what they want first, but I'm not sure that applies in this instance. (I'm more thinking of D-list celebrities eating insects in the jungle, which I'm fairly sure nobody voted for before it appeared.)

    However - and this brings hainba's comment in, too - I don't think our coverage of British trials has been "hidden". I've had two written pieces on the subject on the front of the BBC Sport website, and video highlights from each day's action have been afforded a prominent slot on the top right-hand side of the same page. The site gets a seven-figure number of visitors daily, so the exposure is definitely there.

    We're proud to be covering the event and, increasingly, while old-school television may not accommodate all the coverage on offer, our website usually can. What I think is harder is getting that message out to the viewing public, who are accustomed to this sort of thing on "real" TV and probably don't (and shouldn't) feel the need to go hunting for it. Things like IPTV may well be a real help with that, and I await that with interest.

    Hainba - it's interesting thinking of the process in the UK for young swimmers. It feels to me like the NCAA in the US is a much more nailed-on "this is how you become an Olympian" procedure. In the UK it feels as though there are several ways to do it (not least, go to the US). I wonder if that's a good or bad thing, compared to the US model.

    Tim - excellent comment. It is mind-boggling indeed and it'll probably never happen. Fascinating to think about, though.

  • Comment number 7.

    Ollie, I agree the football and basketball tourny's are huge tv draws, less so the Frozen Four, however it does generate large audience figures. Of course local "sports channels" do show these events as do some of the major tv sports channels. Our own television services are not so regionalised and whilst we may have 3 dedicated sport channel providers, none of them are regional based. It isn't easy for some of the minor sports to obtain tv coverage, and whilst it's been some time since both ITV and the BBC stopped producing Saturday afternoon multisports programmes, it was these programmes which in the past covered national championships, in minor sports such as swimming and Ice Hockey. However the viewing figures and I dare say the cost of these programmes brought an end to these shows, as much as lack of "popular" spors coverage which was available.

    The Uni system in the UK, just isn't focused on sports like those in North America. Sports at Uni is mainly Wednesday afternoons jaunts for those willing to participate. If the Universities entered teams in the lower levels of leagues and encouraged the teams to look for promotions within it might encourage more money being spent on sports at this level. I can only think of the example of Team Bath, which has done such a thing. With the lack of a genuine University level competition to match the NCAA this is the logical direction to go, not only in Football, but all the other sports.

    Having a Uni team play in a competitive league will draw in an audience at the event, but the large attendances like in the US has come over time, and isn't something built over night. I do think our Uni's could provide a genuine route for young sports men and women to achieve national, European, World and even Olympic success, but if it were to start today, it would probably take about 2 Olympic cycles before we see genuine rewards.

  • Comment number 8.

    Leia (I accidentally made you Leia28 as opposed to 27 earlier, humble apologies) - I agree with all of that. The thing that's most striking to me about the Team Bath analogy, and this fits for things like swimming at Loughborough as well, is that many UK sports have *one* big university presence, which is therefore dominant.

    That means Britain doesn't have any big student sport rivalries (not to speak of in the same breath as the NCAA, at least), because if you're really good at a sport, you go to the *one* university that caters for it better than all others. If you swim, you go to Loughborough. If you're a modern pentathlete, you'll be part of Team Bath. And so it goes on. As you say, changing that will take a very long time, and I'm not sure the inclination is there in the first place. The last thing Loughborough wants is for 10 more universities to develop competing swimming programmes, I'd expect...

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Ollie,

    In the report from last night's racing in Sheffield linked from the BBC sport home page there is the following......

    "Spofforth missed out on medals at the Olympics and World Championships in Rome this year with fourth-placed finishes.

    But the 22-year-old, who led the University of Florida Gators to victory in the NCAA Championships in the USA, believes her disappointments can driver her towards success.

    "Coming second, third or fourth really motivates me," she said. "I have a picture of me losing out in Rome as my screensaver."

    Correct me if I'm wrong but Gemma Spofforth won Gold in the 100m Backstroke in Rome in world record time of 58.12 did she not???

    Who wrote that report and how could they have dropped such a clanger??

  • Comment number 10.

    Demand drives media......true but does success not drive demand e.g. cycling. Lack of media exposure is a vicious circle to be honest. I am not sure how much demand there is for athletic events that don't contain Usain Bolt tho and we're almost at a point where the British public could probably name more current UK swimmers than current athletic stars - although ill admit, if they can name anyone from either we're doing well in UK.

    Just to pass comment also on the topic of passion in sport then completely true the UK is a long way behind with football and possibly the boat race providing the only major rivalries. However, a visit to the national Speedo league finals might make an interesting blog on this topic...just remember to take a photographer to show the US style war paint!!

  • Comment number 11.

    Flyinghurdler2 - you're absolutely right. I've gone into the report and amended it. Spofforth DID finish fourth at the World Championships, but in the 200m back, given she obviously won 100m back gold. That's what she's referring to in the quote about Rome - she's often mentioned that screensaver. (I still think she means 'desktop background', but it's always struck me as an odd argument to get into with a world champion.)

    CambDJJ - I've never been to national league finals. I see this year's are on Sunday, 25 April, which is a shame as I'll be working at the European Gymnastics, but I've very tentatively marked next year's in the diary!

  • Comment number 12.

    Ollie, this blog does seem to have ignited some interesting points of view. A good point was made earlier with regards to 2012 medal prospects.

    A truly interesting programme would be following the path of UK athletes towards 2012 including the swimmers you identified earlier. I know C4 identified 'ones to watch in athletics'. I'm sure there are some documentaries (such as the BBC rowing one) are in the making as we speak but surely 'Inside Sport' should have no shortage of material but where has it gone?

    To be slightly controversial and ignoring contractual issues surely the Olympic sports where the UK have potential deserve more TV coverage between now and 2012 than say snooker/american football. So it is disappointing that there is no TV coverage of what sounds like a competitive swim meet (will the Euro's be covered at all?)

    IF there was more TV coverage for swimming I reckon the club's would step up their profiles and compete with Loughbrough. Certain clubs appear strong enough and like to local Uni's. Opening doors for those swimmers who don't make the Loughbrough grade as students.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hainba - I think Euros discussions are ongoing. When we know for sure, details will appear on our swimming coverage page.

    In terms of following athletes, the excellent series Olympic Dreams returns to your screens soon. I believe the next one is aired on Tuesday, 13 April at 2235 BST on BBC One. There is more information about the new series on a joint BBC/Open University website here and we'll have our own page about the new series very shortly. (I.e. I'm about to write it...)

    Inside Sport is still around but tends to have an irregular schedule, appearing when the programme has a story to tell as opposed to being fixed into a slot first. But if you ever saw the Olympic Dreams episode about wheelchair rugby, which is one of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure of watching, you'll know that's a series well worth seeing.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks Ollie I will keep an eye on the TV schedule

    I have to say that my kids loved watching the cycling last week. Hopefully that inspires the next generation of cyclists. If the same could be said for swimming that would be great.

  • Comment number 15.

    As a American college swimmer myself, albeit at a much smaller school, I can really identify with this article. Nobody on my team or any of the teams we compete against swim for any reason other than the love of the sport. We are Division III schools for NCAA, which means nobody gets any athletic scholarships. However, that does not detract from the intensity of competition or the sense of family on the team.


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