Fall of records raise Sydney expectations

That the standard of British swimming has never been higher was clear on a record-breaking night here. Whether it is high enough to win Olympic medals remains to be seen, but this is a team which will travel in expectation as well as hope.

That the standard of British swimming has never been higher was clear on a record-breaking night here. Whether it is high enough to win Olympic medals remains to be seen, but this is a team which will travel in expectation as well as hope.

With the lesser-known names coming to the fore, five more swimmers achieved the tough qualifying times needed to win a place in the British team for Sydney.

The world short-course champion, Mark Foster, the man with webbed toes, reckoned he did no more than go through the motions in winning the 50m sprint in 22.42sec. However, Darren Mew and Adam Whitehead did anything but in a stirring 100m breaststroke as they confirmed their form of the semi-finals. Mew, based at the Centre of Excellence at the University of Bath, took well over half a second off his own personal best in winning in 1.01.78. Whitehead, from Coventry, also swam a personal best in finishing second in 1.02.29.

Simon Militis' performance was all the more admirable for being effectively against the clock. The Portsmouth swimmer was seven seconds clear of the field in winning the 400m medley in a British record 4.20.07.

The pre-selected Alison Sheppard, who set the poolside buzzing on Tuesday when she broke her own Commonwealth record twice, was unable to achieve the sub-25 second time she had hoped for in winning the final of the women's 50m. It says much about how far Sheppard has come, however, that the Canada-based Scot was disappointed with 25.20sec. "It's always difficult in a final, but I'll have to do it if I'm going to win a medal," Sheppard said.

In the words of the sport's National Performance director Deryk Snelling, the 28-year-old is one of several British women who have "learned to swim with absolute power". "It has a lot to do with confidence," Snelling said. "Taking them away on long training camps, teaching them to focus, to be totally committed. We have some very tough girls now who understand what it takes to win."

One such is Margaretha Pedder, who won a competitive 100m butterfly final in 1.00.74 to win her passport to Australia. The Portsmouth swimmer just touched out the teenagers Georgina Lee and Nicola Jackson.

Two more British records fell in women's semi-finals. First, Sarah Price shattered the British mark in the 100m backstroke. Her time of 1.01.93 was almost matched by Katy Sexton in the second semi-final, and both were well within the Olympic qualifying standard. Then Heidi Earp recorded 1.09.92 to beat Suki Brownsden's 13-year-old record in the 100m breaststroke.

On the basis of the times being achieved here, every swimmer who makes the team will regard reaching a final as their least expectation, but amid the growing optimism, Snelling sounded a note of caution. "Expectations may be too high. Lottery money has enabled us to make great strides in the four years since Atlanta, but it may have been too little too late as far as Sydney is concerned.

"If we'd taken the squad we will take to Australia to Atlanta they'd have been a sensation, but swimming has moved on since then. But what we have been able to do is put a lot of athletes within striking distance of medals.

"When people criticise our qualifying times [based on finishing eighth in the World Championships in Perth and 12th in Atlanta], they were set with a view to taking no passengers."

Snelling introduced British swimming to its future yesterday, in the formidably experienced and equally formidably rotund form of the Australian Bill Sweetenham, who takes over from Snelling in November. Formerly head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport and National Youth Coach, Sweetenham has played a major role in making his country the strongest swimming nation in the world.

"I needed a new challenge, and the fact that Great Britain is one of the few swimming nations on the up told me something special can be achieved here," said Sweetenham, who knows a large part of his job will be persuading the British public - and football-obsessed sports media - to take swimming seriously.

"We have to make swimming into a priority sport, and medals won't hurt in changing people's perceptions."

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