Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Foster fascinated by new formula for life in the fast lane

After 12 years of international swimming, Mark Foster has just worked out how to swim one length front crawl. It is a frustrating paradox of sprinting that the harder you try, the slower you swim.

At an international meet in the south of France last month, Foster was amazed to discover he could swim the 50 metres half a second faster simply by relaxing, rather than thrashing it from the start. He will get his final chance to experiment at the National Championships this week at Crystal Palace and finding that extra half a second will be vital if Foster is to win the European Championships in Seville in August.

The five-times world record holder in a short course (25-metre) pool is expecting to add the European to his Commonwealth title over the long course 50- metre pool. "If the same tactics work this week, I know I can win gold in Seville," Foster said.

If his swimming has now become a race of two halves, then so, too, has his life. Having successfully separated himself from the image of the bad boy of British swimming, the 27-year-old looks back on his troubled teenage years with ambivalence. A sprinting phenomenon since his early teens, the world's fastest junior was breaking the rules and records with alarming regularity. He was in trouble with everyone and everything until taking a time-out in 1991, returning to compete in the Olympic final in Barcelona the next year.

"It was a long time ago," Foster says. "It was all just part of growing up and showed I had a bit of character. But then I swam in the final of the Olympics after practically no training." That is the talent of the man.

With the growing-up process finishing at a colossal 6ft 7in, the revised character is the model professional, who now chooses to live life in the fast lanes of international swimming. The bad boy has become the glamour boy of British swimming.

Like Foster, the sport has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and 27 is no longer considered old for a swimmer. The changes are wholly because of money. "In swimming now, you can definitely make a good living," he says, and he intends to carry on doing so beyond the year 2000. "Prize- money is increasing all the time, but you have to win titles as well to attract sponsors."

With two major sponsors, Adidas and Cellnet, providing a basic income, the rest is made from appearance and prize-money. Always seeking to maximise the quality of life, his successes have enabled him to enjoy fast cars and expensive clothes, an image envied by most other swimmers. Foster enjoys the benefits of professionalism and sees himself leading the way for others to follow.

"With Lottery money now, the elite swimmer can make pounds 20,000, which can double or triple with prize-money and sponsorship," Foster said. "I used to get a kick from seeing Adrian Moorhouse driving around in a Porsche. If he had won the Olympics and was driving a Fiesta, no one would bother. When the sport is attractive and exciting, kids will work harder to get to the top."

In his own search to become the best sprinter in the world, Foster joined Linford Christie and Colin Jackson at their track sessions in Cardiff before the Atlanta Olympics last year. "They would warm up and do one 200 metres flat out, every half an hour. It is 20 seconds of intense work, with a very long rest. The 200 metres on the track is the equivalent of the 50 metres in the pool, and now I train the same way.

"Even if I only swim 30 kilometres a week [most international swimmers will swim twice this distance], it's going to be high quality, mentally and physically, and so I need to have proper rest to be able to keep doing it well. I believe you have got to train at the pace you are going to race at, or else you are just teaching your body to swim slow."

It is a surprise to find Foster training seven days a week at the elite training village at Bath University - the first project to be completed with Lottery money. Swimming is one of its priority sports and the programme there is shaping the future of the sport in this country. Surrounded by excellence, the elite athletes are at the centre of a com- prehensive, scientific support programme, which is why Foster is there: "I like to be around positive, motivated people all the time, and here I am training with some of the best in the world."

With team-mates like Olympic silver medallist Paul Palmer, it is easy for Foster to remain focused. But despite his confident demeanour, Foster cannot do it on his own and needs the support of a committed coach. Ian Turner is the head coach at Bath and chief coach to the British team, and has the rare ability to keep Foster in line. "Ian keeps me very motivated and will give me his attention all the time. If a coach is not going to bother, then why should I?"

It will be a confident Foster who, if he stays relaxed this week, will race to become European champion in Seville.