Swimming: Bill Furniss eager to turn up the heat on British hopefuls in quest to make bigger splash
New national swimming coach has Adlington's blessing but World Championships may be too soon to tell
Sunday 30 June 2013
For the man who Rebecca Adlington claimed was "the best swimming coach in the world", it was not much of an inheritance. Budgets were slashed, expectations had seldom been lower and, as Bill Furniss wryly pointed out when he was appointed Britain's head coach: "We have just lost two-thirds of our Olympic medallists." He was supposed to take up his job at the start of April but "I thought it best not to start on the first of the month".
Adlington, who supplied two of Britain's three Olympic swimming medals in London, retired with a few lacerating judgements about the state of British swimming in the wake of a bitterly disappointing Games. Five medals was not much of a target but Great Britain fell two short. Michael Scott resigned as performance director; the head coach, Dennis Pursley, returned to his native United States.
Furniss, the man who had steered Adlington to greatness in Beijing five years ago, appeared an obvious successor. Adlington, who will be involved in preparations for the World Aquatic Championships later this month, described him as a man "who never gets stressed". She said: "If you see him angry, you know he means business, which I like."
Chris Spice was a less obvious appointment as performance director, as he had no background in swimming. He might be best described as a man who has original sporting ideas and has already deployed them in rugby, basketball and hockey.
This week they have been in Sheffield overseeing the British Championships, which will serve as trials before they face the world in Barcelona. The squad is named today. Furniss is promising a tighter, tougher unit than the one that failed at the Olympics but he has only just been appointed, nobody expects anything and the battles that will decide his reputation lie in a more distant future. He intends to be very hands on.
"A broad-brush approach does not win medals at major Games," he said. "London hurt a lot of athletes and a lot of coaches. They went to the Olympics convinced they were going to perform. They were shocked and I am pleased they were. It shows me there is some passion there.
"You didn't see them when they came into the swim-down pools after the events but they were gutted. Perhaps they should have let that out a bit more in the interviews."
Britain is not the only nation to be groping through a post-London hangover. Swimming Australia, one of the great powers of the sport, produced an Olympic debrief that accused its athletes of operating in a "toxic environment" of "drink, prescription drugs, deceit and bullying".
The man who was charged with overseeing their revival, Barclay Nettlefold, has just resigned as president of Swimming Australia after allegations that he asked for athletes' rooms to be checked for sex toys and that he should be referred to as "Donkey" because of the size of his genitals. By comparison, Britain's response to Olympic underachievement appears measured.
One trait Furniss and Spice have identified is that British swimmers tend to peak well before an Olympics and then tail off. The last time the World Championships were held in Barcelona a decade ago, Britain won eight medals, including golds for James Gibson and Katy Sexton. In the Athens Olympics the following year, the return was less impressive – two bronze medals.
Spice talks of bringing in sports psychologists while the trials are being staged just before the World Championships to keep performance levels up. In 2012, the British Championships were in March. "Then, just before the Olympics, we fell away," said Furniss. "Twenty-one weeks is a long time to train and then peak again. It was too long, some felt pressurised, others went stale. This team will be smaller and harder to make.
"We had a lot of finalists in London and that is encouraging but, if you look back over the last five Olympics, British swimming has delivered between nil and three medals in the pool. We need to raise the bar."
However, the London Aquatics Centre saw the bar not just lifted but tossed away. Two 15-year-olds, Katie Ledecky and Ruta Meilutyte, destroyed their competition to the extent that when Ledecky won the 800m freestyle she finished a full six seconds ahead of Adlington in third. At 23, Britain's finest swimmer could no longer compete.
Furniss may be the best coach in the world but Scotland would not win the World Cup even with Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm. Hannah Miley is a case in point. She is the European 400m individual medley champion, won gold for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and in Sheffield last week she won her 17th gold at a British Championships. Had she swum to her personal best at the London Olympics, she would have won bronze. She finished fifth.
London may represent a beginning rather than an end for those, like Miley, travelling to Barcelona in search of a bigger splash.
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