Rolph's world consumed by the dream

Alan Hubbard meets a water girl in the fast lane to Lisbon and Sydney

AT 5ft 5inSue Rolph is a tiddler in terms of an international swimmer's physique but there is a growing belief that when Sydney comes around next year she will emerge as a very big fish in the Olympic pool.

AT 5ft 5inSue Rolph is a tiddler in terms of an international swimmer's physique but there is a growing belief that when Sydney comes around next year she will emerge as a very big fish in the Olympic pool.

"According to the sports scientists she is far too short to be a sprinter," says her coach, Ian Oliver. "But when she is in the water she seems to grow about six inches. Her stroke is so graceful, so effortless. A lot of swimmers, even the great ones, thrash about like piranhas. Sue's more like a porpoise."

It is four decades since a British woman won an Olympic swimming gold but there is an increasing conviction within the sport that the 21-year-old Rolph will end the drought and follow Anita Lonsbrough on to the winner's rostrum.

At the very least she is a serious contender for the 100m freestyle title which, like the corresponding athletics event, is regarded as the blue riband of the sport. In Istanbul four months ago she became the first Britain ever to win the European Championship over this distance - and again the first British gold medallist since Lonsbrough took the 200m breaststroke 37 years ago. This week Rolph is attempting to convert this success into another gold in the European short course championships in Lisbon. Although, as she says, this event, raced in a 25m rather than an Olympic-sized 50m pool, is not such a big deal, it is a useful tune-up for the national championships in Sheffield a week later, and invaluable preparation for Sydney.

Adrian Moorhouse, the last Briton to win any sort of Olympic title, in 1988, considers Rolph the best British female swimmer of the decade, and potentially the greatest of all time. Since her victory in Istanbul she has felt the full weight on shoulders finely sculptured by rigorous weight training. "I try not to think about it," she said during a break between sessions at the City pool near her Newcastle home. "But I can't avoid it. Sydney is always in my mind. Every time I go to the pool I stand on the edge and wonder what it is going to be like in Sydney. Everyone keeps telling me 'Don't worry, you'll swim really well' but every time I hear that my stomach just hits my throat."

In sport, such nervous tension is deemed to be beneficial, and there is certainly nothing in Rolph's sunny, outgoing demeanour which suggests that she is anything but confident in her burgeoning talent. She has beaten the world's No 1, Jenny Thompson, four times out of five over 50m and 100m in recent meetings, and although the American has recorded faster times, as Rolph points out, in the big races it is not breaking records but getting the final touch first that matters. "People remember winners, not records."

Rolph has known little but swimming all her born days. "I have devoted 21 years of my life to the sport," she says. "It consumes just about every waking hour." Waking time is 4.30am, 363 days of the year - she allows herself a lay-in at Christmas and New Year - and an hour later she is in the pool for two hours followed by a gymnasium session and more pool practice in the afternoon.

She sings to herself - usually pop songs she has heard on the car radio - to while away the tedious training hours but never gets bored. "Tired, yes, but never bored. I love swimming too much. Obviously there are times, usually just after I wake up on cold winter mornings when I ask myself 'Why the hell am I doing this?' But the truth is I love it. When you are training so much you live in your own world. Anything outside that bubble, I don't understand very much."

She is the original water baby and says her water-polo-playing father "must have thrown me in at the deep end the day I was born". She was swimming without armbands by the time she was two and at 13 she won eight gold medals at the national age group championships, though none of them were for freestyle, which she developed when she joined her coach, Oliver, at Newcastle the following year. At 14 Rolph was swimming faster times than Dawn Fraser at her best.

She swam in the Atlanta Olympics alongside - or rather behind, the now disgraced Michelle Smith, unsuspecting of the furore that was to follow. "I have to say I felt a bit sorry for her with all the innuendo that was flying around. I have always believed you are innocent until proved guilty. I actually got to talk to her at one stage and she seemed very nice. I was surprised when it all blew up the way it did, and the way the test was conducted seemed very bizarre, but in the end it has done neither Michelle nor swimming any good at all."

As European and double Commonwealth champion, Rolph no longer has to rely on financial support from her parents. She receives sufficient Lottery funding, as a world-class performer, to consider herself a full-time professional, driving a T-reg convertible and living comfortably with her Welsh fiancé, Phil. "I doubt if even the Americans earn more than me."

She will go for gold in the 2002 Commonwealth games after Sydney when she will be 24, which used to be considered bus-pass age for swimmers. Nowadays they plough on until they are 30 or more. "But as far as the Olympics are concerned Sydney will be make or break for me. I don't know whether I will still be at my best by the time of the next Olympics in Athens. I will probably be retired by then. I want to make sure I get out at the right time, I don't want to be on the team as a tripper."

Except for Alan Shearer, Rolph's is probably the best-known face in Geordie sport. By rights it ought to figure prominently in this month's Sports Personality of the Year Awards, but, as she admits, swimming is not a high-profile sport. She will be doing her best to raise its profile in Lisbon and subsequently Sydney, where privately she reckons that only Thompson stands between her and gold. But she would prefer not to be the favourite. "I don't want to get to the Olympic final and having people looking at me and saying 'she is the one to beat'." It is inevitable, however, that such pressures will escalate.

Small fry she may be alongside some of the big barracudas of the pool, but it is comforting to know that Sue Rolph is unlikely to end up among the also-swams. There is a steely purpose about this porpoise.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm that there was a 'minor disturbance'

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Analyst - London - £22,000

£20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chel...

KS2 Primary Teacher Plymouth

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Primary Teacher Cornwall

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers ...

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album