Britain show potential for Olympic gold

Swimming supremo hopes European Championship successes can lead to more medals at Sydney 2000.
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The Independent Online

AFTER LAST weekend's successes in the pool in Lisbon the call was made for a leader. An ace of the British swimming clubs.

AFTER LAST weekend's successes in the pool in Lisbon the call was made for a leader. An ace of the British swimming clubs.

"I'm still looking for someone with the charisma to lead this team to Olympic gold," the national performance director, Deryk Snelling, lamented yesterday. But among our newly crowned kings and queens of European swimming, none is yet ready to show their cards.

At 6ft 7in Mark Foster is big enough. At 29, he is old enough. And with 10 world and European records he is a proven champion. At the European Short Course Championships in Portugal last weekend, where Britain won three gold, three silver and nine bronze medals, Foster retained his 50 metre freestyle title for the second time to continue his domination of this event. But he has been around long enough to know that one good European Championships does not an Olympic medal make.

Fastest into the 50m butterfly final on Sunday and 0.19 sec from the world record, Foster stunned an expectant crowd and withdrew. His explanation was evidence of wisdom learned from a personal acquaintance with those twin imposters of triumph and disaster.

It seems that no amount of outside expectation will force Foster to play a trump card too early in his game. "Sprinting is all mental," he said. "It's emotionally draining. Last year was intense and with so many races I was knackered at the Europeans in August and finished seventh.

"It's all about peaking at the right time and I don't want to get too excited at the moment because it's a long year. There's no need for me to be extra special yet. The main thing here was to win the 50 free, and with the 50 fly and the relay back to back on Sunday, I didn't want to risk being wiped out this early in the year."

Foster was alluding to a flu bug that spread around some the team, forcing a number of withdrawals. Sprinters are well known for being such delicate creatures that to cough too loudly in the morning will keep them in bed for the rest of the day. But with gold medals won and lost by hundredths of seconds, Foster knows his health this year is paramount.

The world record can wait, for now. Despite the bugs, 15 medals was an excellent return. So too were the 10 British records and wealth of best times. Many of next year's Olympic medallists were in Lisbon competing with well-prepared teams. It is all the more encouraging, therefore, that Ed Sinclair and Nicola Jackson have now established themselves as senior record holders and medallists after glittering junior careers. They are two of a large group benefiting from Snelling's four-year plan to maximise British chances of future international success.

Making the British individuals think and perform as a team, and then having them populate finals, were steps one and two. "Step three is getting onto the podium, which is where this team is at the moment. If we can consolidate here, then we can go onto the fourth stage, which is winning the golds," Snelling said.

So could James Hickman answer Snelling's call, perhaps?

Another gold medal winner from Lisbon and multiple world record holder, Hickman retained his 200m butterfly title, won silver in the 100m event and added a relay bronze.

Much is expected from Hickman this year and to deliver in Sydney he will have to convert his outstanding abilities in a short course pool (25m) to the long course (50m) of the Olympics.

Hickman's strength is his power off his turns but with fewer turns in the longer pool, his advantage is reduced. "To be disappointed with a gold, silver and bronze means I've made a jump to being a very good swimmer," he said. "But this weekend, despite being in great physical shape, I felt like I just didn't have that spark.

"Every race now is practice for the Olympics and I have lacked the competitions this year. And I'm not quite there mentally, for obvious reasons."

Not usually known for understatement, it has been clear to many that the usually effervescent Hickman has been a little flat this year. The "obvious reasons" were the death of his father last month to an advanced cancer diagnosed in February. Hickman says it is business as usual - but not even he can know how long it will take for the spark to return.

With Olympic silver and bronze medallists Paul Palmer and Graeme Smith absent from the meet, and the third gold medallist, Zoe Baker, winning the 50m breaststroke (not yet an Olympic event), step forward Sue Rolph. Britain's first ever European long course champion in the 100m freestyle smashed her British short course record, only to be eclipsed by a world record 52.80 from Therese Alshammer, one of five world records set at the Championships and all from the team of the meet, Sweden.

"If I had swum 53.26 and won, I would be beside myself but the world record just takes the gloss away," she said. "Still, I'm the second fastest in the world this year and I want the rest of the world to hear about it. The Olympic Games is not won here and everything is going in the right direction for me."

Another indication that when the time is right and the players are ready to play, Snelling may well find his charismatic leader.

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