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What next for Britain's top swimmers?

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Ollie Williams | 18:12 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

On the face of it, travelling to the European Championships in Hungary without the proper preparation and returning with 18 medals is a triumph for Great Britain's swimmers.

Having chosen to focus on October's Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the entire team arrived in Budapest without having undergone the process known as tapering, in which athletes scale down the intensity of their training to ready themselves for big events.

Their subsequent results are a success story - GB's six gold medals equalled the combined gold haul in the previous six European Championships, dating back to 1999.

But they don't mean all is now perfect for British swimming. Two years ahead of London 2012, both the swimmers and their coaching staff have plenty of work to do to maximise their medal potential at the Olympic Games.

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Spofforth and Simmonds, GB stars at Euros (UK only)

The biggest worry for Britain is the strength of its men's swimming programme.

Of those 18 medals won in Budapest, just three came from male swimmers. World champion backstroker Liam Tancock won 50m silver and 100m bronze - having only reached one final thanks to Austrian rival Markus Rogan dropping out - and Joe Roebuck picked up 200m individual medley bronze..

Granted, the team which travelled to Hungary lacked some star British male talent - James Goddard being an example. Fourth-fastest in the world in the 200m individual medley this year (ironically one of the events British men still managed a medal in), the 27-year-old sat out the Europeans, apparently through injury.

He was joined on the sidelines by Chris Walker-Hebborn - both are in the world's top 10 for 200m backstroke, and Goddard has posted a quicker time over that distance this year than the time which saw Russia's Stanislav Donets European win gold.

You could go on listing names, such as butterfly absentee Michael Rock. However, whether any of these swimmers would have represented cast-iron medal prospects had they turned up is another matter.

Steve Parry, who won his first major medal at the 1997 European Championships in Seville (in the 200m butterfly), spent his week poolside for BBC Radio 5 live. He refuses to write off Britain's current male crop.

"It's hard to make a judgement because the men here are not fully prepared," he told me. "But what I like about them is the grit, the determination, the willingness to race and not give up that they've shown.

"A great example of that was Saturday's 4x200m freestyle relay. There was no way the British men should have run France as close as they did for bronze."

It seems a little dispiriting that while the women's relay teams racked up a gold and a silver, the men made do with nearly nicking a bronze. But Parry points to wider considerations in the men's sports.

"The French pair of Camille Lacourt (who outclassed Tancock throughout the week) and Yannick Agnel are 6ft 5in or 6ft 6in at least. Our guys aren't nearly as big. Liam Tancock is a world record-holder, so who's to say what the right body type is, but I do think we've seen a change in body type.

"However, everyone we've got with any potential for 2012 is already in the system. So if British men are going to win then they've got to beat them with training, coaching expertise and attitude."

Britain's women do not share that problem, but they cannot become complacent on the back of the excellent performances they have delivered.

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GB relay team win gold after disqualification (UK only)

"They're far exceeding my expectations," said British head coach Dennis Pursley. "I didn't expect as many medals or personal bests as we've had with swimmers who are, for the most part, swimming through this meet and looking ahead to the Commonwealths.

"They've passed a big test and it's a characteristic of a real championship team when you can perform even when the conditions may not be just right.

"If things go according to plan then we should have a good Commonwealths meet, but we're going up against the number two country in the world of swimming and that's a big challenge for us."

That's why it's important for swimmers like Fran Halsall, who produced the finest European performance of any British swimmer in history to win five medals, to keep their feet on the ground in spite of their Hungarian heroics. Strong as the fields in many of the European events were, the list of those not present is in some cases far more daunting.

Even a handful of top European swimmers missed out. Sidelined German star Britta Steffen and the Netherlands' Ranomi Kromowidjojo will both hope to challenge Halsall for freestyle medals at London 2012. Anastasia Zueva of Russia would have given British duo Lizzie Simmonds and Gemma Spofforth - who dominated the 100m and 200m backstroke - a run for their money.

A question often asked is why the Commonwealth Games are deemed more important than the Europeans and, for the women, the answer largely boils down to the presence of the Australian women's team.

Australia are usually considered second only to the United States in the world, and the British stars (who will compete for England, Scotland or Wales in Delhi) cannot be judged until they have at least faced the Australians in October. The likes of Liesel Jones, Emily Seebohm and Stephanie Rice await the Britons.

"The key barometer is going up against the Aussies," said Parry. "I think Britain are going to rival them for the first time ever, and I don't think they should shy away from trying to win more gold medals than Australia do on the women's side. I think the Australians are going to be scared of the British women."

Beyond that, the Americans await, with the next long-course World Championships scheduled for July 2011 in Shanghai, China.

But by then, top British swimmers will be increasingly battling another demon: the immense pressure ahead of London 2012.

The better they become, the more those results will come to be expected.

Following a disappointing seventh-place finish in the women's 800m freestyle earlier in the week, Rebecca Adlington summed up the weight on her shoulders after her double Olympic success in 2008.

"I'm finding it difficult to deal with the pressure, I'm still trying to find my feet after Beijing," she said. "I'm not using that as an excuse but I've got to find something that works for me, I can't always win and get a world record, that's not realistic."

BBC commentator and former freestyle world champion Karen Pickering said: "Rebecca Adlington swam times unrested in Barcelona (at June's Mare Nostrum meet) that could have won here.

"But nerves and pressure make you feel more tired and knowing she wasn't fully rested would have been adding to the stress, going up against girls who are. She needed to forget it because she appeared very fragile after that race."

That is precisely what the 21-year-old did, roaring back to win the 400m freestyle European title on the competition's final day, proving she could conquer that pressure.

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Adlington wins 400m freestyle gold (UK only)

Australia begin their Pan Pacific meet on Wednesday, alongside fellow Commonwealth nation Canada plus Japan and the United States, and that gives the British a chance to see how their rivals are faring in the run-up to the Commonwealths.

London 2012 may be the long-term goal, but every victory against an Australian in October will count as proof not only of British physical capabilities on a global stage, but an ability to handle the pressure that comes with that.

"Who's going to come out on top in the Commonwealth medal standings? Only time will tell," said Pursley.

"But our girls will give Australia a run for their money, do some damage, and win some medals."


  • Comment number 1.

    Ollie the presence of the Australian women's team still doesn't bring Commonwealth competition anywhere near what you would expect in Europe. The truth about the prioritizing the Commonwealths is all based on the greater level of exposure and coverage the Commonwealth Games gets - good for promoting the team, good for funding.

    In a sense Parry seems naively optimistic not to write off this British men's team, at least in terms of winning global titles; however, I suppose the lesson from Lacourt is that things can change very quickly. As such a controlled environment, swimming can seem easy to predict, even in the long run, but this guy came from nowhere really. Lacourt is 25 yet hadn't even swum a major championship 100 back for France before this year; all of sudden he is (in real terms) clearly the fastest ever. If people keep working the right way, champions could yet emerge for 2012.

  • Comment number 2.

    I can only add to #1. Surely Adlington would come across the actual competition in Europe and should win double gold without too much trouble in October.

  • Comment number 3.

    Pity Britain couldn't manage an invite to the Pan Pacific meet, seeing as that's got both the Aussies and the Yanks. Seriously, how hard is it to move an island? ;-)

  • Comment number 4.

    Firstly, glad to BBC managed to cover the Europeans but what was missing was highlights at a peak time (even on the red button). I hope the commonwealths will have greater coverage on terrestrial/freeview and highlights too.

    As a sport swimming does keep producing 'new' names so none of the established swimmers can rest on their laurels and I'm sure they won't. As there are no superstars in British swimming they're all grounded individuals who have progressed through the club structure.

    Rebecca is refreshingly honest about the pressures of her sport and expectations. We know she and the GB team will always do their best unlike other primadona professional sports. Only certain sections of the media are 'hyping' the olympic stars when there are still so many lengths to swim.

  • Comment number 5.

    Its funny how we get so hyped up about a weeks worth of swimming at the Olympic games, it will come and go in the blink of an eye and then they will all have to focuse on the next championships.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for the comments, apologies for taking a little time to get around to writing back.

    felixtzu - Yes and no. As English Arrogance says, Becky Adlington won't face a field at the Commonwealths like the one she had to contend with at the Euros. But the Euros field was under-strength in a number of events as detailed above, and Federica Pellegrini sitting out the 400m made that event considerably easier from Adlington's point of view - as she, to her credit, remarked on live radio afterwards.

    At the same time, Hannah Miley won't face anything quite like Steph Rice in Europe, and the same goes for a number of other GB swimmers. So it's swings and roundabouts to a degree. I certainly agree about Lacourt, though. What a talent to have been idling away for years and then emerge like that. I hadn't thought of that from a British point of view, though, and that's interesting reasoning.

    unounos - You could say that about the whole of the Olympics, couldn't you? Track and field, hockey, cycling, rowing, the works. Why get hyped up for a football match when it's gone in 90 minutes?


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