Chariots of fire and water

Countdown to Atlanta: A top British coach is prepared to pay his own way to help fulfil a swimmer's ambition: Paul Trow looks at the double act determined to be reunited in Atlanta
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The Independent Online
It was, perhaps, Harold Abrahams among modern sportsmen who first recognised the advantages which can be gained from good coaching.

As depicted in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, Abrahams hired a professional coach as part of his plan to capture the 100 metres gold medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The only hitch was that it was against the rules - association with a professional coach was forbidden for an amateur.

To do something similar today would hardly result in disqualification, but if the professional coach of your choice is not also your national Olympic association's choice, a lot of money will need to be spent to get him to the Games, and even then your access to each other would be severely restricted.

For 19-year-old Neil Willey, ranked second in the world this year in the 100m backstroke and possibly Britain's best swimming medal prospect, exactly this problem seems to have arisen with this summer's Olympics in Atlanta less than two months away.

Doug Campbell, who has looked after him for four and a half years, is not one of the five coaches who have been selected to accompany the British team. However, echoing the unofficial presence of Abrahams' coach, he plans to travel there anyway.

"The coaches who got in ahead of me all had more swimmers in the squad; that's the system," said Campbell, who looks after only one other Atlanta selection - Carrie Wilmott in the 4x100m freestyle relay. "In 1992, I benefited from the same policy when I went to the Barcelona Games because I coached four of the team members.

"I've been told by the Amateur Swimming Association that a couple of extra spots may have been created by some countries not taking up their allocation, and there's a chance I'll be added to the party. But if this doesn't happen, I'm prepared to make my own way from the squad's pre-Olympic training camp at Tallahassee in Florida.

"I've got somewhere to stay in the Atlanta area, but I would have to pay for my transport and tickets. Getting into the heats and final alone will set me back pounds 255, and my access to Neil would be extremely limited as I definitely won't be allowed into the Olympic Village."

Whilst Abrahams, as noted for his single-mindedness as he was for his sprinting prowess, was wealthy enough to circumvent any inconvenient regulations which got in his way, Willey certainly could not be expected to finance Campbell's passage.

So when the 35-year-old Scot, who was seventh in the 200m backstroke final in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, discovered that he was surplus to the ASA's requirements, he launched a public campaign to help fund his visit to the Games.

Abrahams' coach, who fulfilled every function from devising training drills to providing a pre-race massage, gave the great man an undeniable edge over his rivals. Such an approach to both the technique and spirit of sporting endeavour was unheard of in that sepia-tinted era. But the picture could not be more different today and there are now few competitive arenas which are not dominated by the culture of the coach.

British sport may not have the finance and resources which are at the disposal of, for instance, the United States, but there is still a strong belief in the value of coaching. The British team in Atlanta is expected to total 550 people, 230 of whom will not be competitors. And in most of the events, the leading performers will have no shortage of specialist input from the coaches who know them best.

If Campbell does find himself on the outside looking in at Atlanta, even the brief moments he would snatch with Willey should be worthwhile. "The coach doesn't just supervise training; he looks after the psychological side as well," said Campbell, who has been based at Copthall in north London since 1988.

"Backstroke is a technical discipline and, with no disrespect to the selected coaches who are all very good, none of them knows Neil as well as I do. If a fault creeps into his technique, I'd notice it before anyone else, and, hopefully, put it right before any damage is done. If it isn't spotted early enough, it might make the difference between reaching the final and getting a medal.

"Neil is a fast improver - he didn't swim well when he was seventh in last year's European championships in Vienna, but has made a rapid rise since then, lowering his best time by six-tenths of a second to the 55.04 he clocked recently in Sheffield.

"He's like a hurdler in that he knows exactly how many strokes he makes on each length and his timing is almost perfect. He can do it with his eyes closed when everything's going right.

"The turn after 50 metres is all about timing because you have to rotate on to your front and push off the side with your feet. When I was British record-holder, you used to have to touch the side with your hands, but they've changed the rules since then."

Coaching tips can even solve the backstroker's perennial head-ache - how to avoid banging your crown on the wall because you cannot see it coming. "I tell Neil to look for the flags above him. Then he knows he's only five yards away," Campbell said.

What Abrahams would have given for a coach who looked after his technique and his head.