European Swimming Championships: Gillingham faces up to the problem of setting the pace: Guy Hodgson examines the responsibility that burdens a British medal hope

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MANY British tears were shed on the sides of Montjuic Pool in Barcelona last summer, but none were more heartfelt than those following the final of the 100 metres breastroke. Nick Gillingham versus Adrian Moorhouse had been billed as swimming's Coe against Ovett and it was. Except the race was to avoid coming last.

Gillingham, hampered by a groin injury, finished seventh, a touch ahead of Moorhouse, the defending champion; neither could believe they had been so far adrift of the medals. The disappointment that night was to set a precedent for the entire British Olympic swimming campaign.

Gillingham, whose bronze in the 200m breaststroke later in the Games would be Britain's only aquatic medal, also acts as a tone-setter tonight in the European Championships where he will take part in his shorter event blessed or handicapped by setting the fastest time in the world in the ASA Championships in June.

His 1min 2.16sec tops the European rankings by a nearly half a second and he is further encouraged by the absence of Norbert Rozsa, the world and European champion, who has forsaken these championships after a schism in Hungarian swimming, the most alarming result of which is police inquiries into debts of dollars 7.5m ( pounds 5m). Rozsa did not take the money, but he has run to Australia where he has applied for citizenship.

Gillingham, 26, from Birmingham, has produced some of his best performances at Ponds Forge, the pool built in Sheffield for the World Student Games, but has spent the build-up dulling expectation. 'Just because I swam well in the trials does not mean I'm certain to win a gold medal now,' he said. 'It's very important to get away to a good start on day one because the confidence of the whole squad will snowball. I don't feel under any pressure. There's only the pressure I always put on myself to try to produce my best time.'

He is certain of the attention which has bypassed Karen Pickering even though her time of 56.54sec makes her third in the 100m freestyle rankings, Britain's best-placed woman. Her event always coincides with the men's 100m breaststroke which in recent years has meant she has been like Leyton Orient trying to divert the headlines from Arsenal and Tottenham.

'It's always been this way,' the 21- year-old from Ipswich said. 'Before Nick it was Adrian Moorhouse. In the 1989 Europeans I finished sixth and thought it was a really good achievement, but Adrian beat the world record in his heat and then won the final so what I did couldn't compete. I will just have to do something spectacular.'

Pickering, who is a self-confessed follower of the unconventional, will need to exceed expectation considerably as she will be facing Franziska van Almsick, the 15-year-old German who won four medals in the Olympics and has since been setting world records at a rate to dismay the printers of record books.

'She's the one to beat,' Pickering said, 'but if I get my swim right I think I've a good chance of coming away with a medal.' After an Olympics where no British woman reached a final, such a result would be greeted like a Test win at cricket.

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