It was as she sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair in a white-washed room deep within Beijing's Water Cube that Fran Halsall realised what swimming in an Olympic final meant. "It drained me," she says. "The Olympic bubble is so surreal."
Halsall laughs and tucks her legs beneath her, this time sitting in a comfortable armchair in a private sports club in London. "It's absolutely different to every other competition," she says. "I sat in the call room 10 minutes before the race with all the other competitors and the atmosphere ... everybody seemed under this enormous amount of pressure. I'm glad I've had the experience because I know how to respond to it. I know how to manage it."
Halsall, then aged 19, finished last in the 100m freestyle in 2008. Next year the aim is to finish in the first three – she is ranked No 2 in the world – and secure one part of a unique achievement for a Briton: to win five medals in a single Games. She is also chasing a medal in the 50m free, the 100m butterfly and two relays, providing trials and selection are safely negotiated. No Briton has ever won more than three.
Training to claim the quintet has begun in earnest – 60,000m a week in the pool plus time in the gym and on the road. It is a long and wearying road that lies ahead, broken by the occasional competition, Europe's Duel in the Pool with the Americans next month and next spring the Olympic trials – and a first competitive swim in the Olympic pool itself – before the Games arrive in August. "And then I'll have a nice holiday..." says Halsall.
Halsall trains in Loughborough under the direction of Ben Titley, part of a group of British swimmers who hold realistic ambitions of stepping on to the podium next summer. Titley has designed a varied routine for his retinue. Ballet is the current cross-training challenge presented to Halsall, Liam Tancock, Liz Simmonds and Jo Jackson, following on from kick-boxing, canoeing and rock climbing. "The teacher's name is Arianna, she's Italian and she's so strict," says Halsall and laughs merrily . The 21-year-old from Southport is a sparky character and laughter provides the backing track to time in her company.
Earlier on a grey afternoon she had swept up and down the club's pool on the fourth floor of a Canary Wharf shopping complex. The glass-framed building in London's Docklands is surrounded by high rises which hide the distinctive sloped roof of the Olympic aquatics centre barely a mile away and where her career will be defined in eight months. Titley pointed out her armspan when she swims. Halsall is 5ft 7in, small for a top-rank swimmer, but she has a long reach, much in the manner of a Michael Phelps.
Titley, believes Halsall, excels in picking up quickly on small details and in the hundredths of a second that can split sprinters that matters. "He has such a good eye," says Halsall. It cannot have challenged him to pick the faults when it came to my turn to take to the water. It did offer a direct example of what a coach can do – a couple of suggestions about head and arm position and there's an immediate difference. "You know when someone's a good coach when they go [she snaps her fingers] and it works," says Halsall.
Since a disappointing swim at the world championships in Shanghai in July – two fourth places can be explained in part by a disrupted year following ankle surgery last December – she and Titley have been working on her starts and turns. In Shanghai she qualified fastest for the 100m free final but before the race she was gripped by tension and never got into her stride. "I was very nervous. I'm normally relaxed," she says. "I didn't know how I was swimming because I hadn't had a whole season's worth of work behind me. I didn't know where I was and that got to me."
Halsall has twice won five medals at major events. Last year in Budapest she won two golds, two silver and a bronze in the European championships to become the most decorated British swimmer at a single meet and followed that by taking a gold, three silver and a bronze at the Commonwealth Games. How she mentally handles the expectations of a home Games may determine how many times she steps on to the podium in London.
She hopes to have the comfort of a familiar face in the Olympic village – "one normal thing" – if her boyfriend, Alastair Wilson, makes the British hockey squad again. The pair met at a party on the last night in Beijing. The British Olympic Association are acutely aware of the pressures on the host nation's athletes and to that end Halsall and other leading swimmers have received a talk from Susie O'Neill, the Australian who matched huge pre-Games hype in Sydney 2000 to win home gold.
Halsall tries to hold the party line – one that all British Olympians look to deliver. "I'm not going to bed an hour earlier all year because it's the Olympics," she says. "It's just another meet I want to do well in." There is an urge to check if her fingers are crossed. Really?
"It's always there in the back of my mind. Yes, it's exciting, really exciting... Actually I'm mega excited about it." And she throws her head back and laughs.
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