Simon Turnbull: How bigger pools could make bigger fish out of Britain's golden swimmers

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The Independent Online

Chris Cook - winner of the 50m and 100m breaststroke at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, and a member of England's silver-medal winning 4 x 100m medley relay team - has yet to gauge which way the wind is blowing in terms of his public profile back home in the North-east of England. Since Monday, the day after the closing ceremony at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the 25-year-old has been hard at work at The Southport School, British Swimming's "offshore" training base on Australia's Gold Coast. Tonight he heads off to Shanghai for the World Short-Course Championships, which run from 5 to 9 April. The principal object-ive for the eight-strong British team is to dip a familiarising toe in Chinese waters with the Beijing Olympics in mind.

"Yeah, it's a good opportunity for a recce," Cook acknowledges. "China's a completely different culture and the more you can experience it, the more you'll become accustomed to it. Plus I'm conscious of keeping my eye on the world stage."

Such words will be music to the ears of Bill Sweetenham. The need to step up to global level was the thrust of the pragmatic message from the Australian performance director of British Swimming in the wake of a Commonwealth campaign in which Britannia very nearly ruled the waves again. In fact, take the formidable armada of Aussie women out of the equation, and you were left with a tidal wave of British success in Melbourne - 12 golds for the combined male forces of England, Scotland and Wales against just the one for Australia's men. In Manchester four years previously the score had been a sweeping 15-3 the other way.

"The Empire strikes back," a headline in The Age put it, as the Aussie inquest began. "Where the bloody hell are England's pools?" Louise Evans mused in The Australian. "Satellite images on reveal they've got puddles big enough to swallow villages but don't reveal any 50m pools."

For the record, there are 19 pools of standard international competition length, 50m, within the United Kingdom. Within a 10-mile radius of The Southport School in Queensland there are more than 20. If that does not place the size of Britain's achievement in the Commonwealth pool into sufficient perspective, consider the fact that Cook - who finished with twice as many gold medals as the entire Australian men's team - does his swimming in a pool less than half the regulation size: the City Pool in Newcastle.

"It's not a 25m pool; it's 25 yards," he says, prompting the observation that it would be like an athlete training on a 200m indoor track in preparation for racing on a 400m oval outdoors. "Or like Jonny Wilkinson playing on a half-size pitch with a half-size ball," Cook adds, for good measure.

So Shanghai, with its 25m pool for next week's short-course competition, will be something of a home from home for the Tynesider, although it is in the 50m arena that his true global worth will always be measured. Does the golden boy of English swimming not wonder what he might achieve if he had a full-length pool close at hand (the nearest being 100 miles south, in Leeds, or 120 miles north, in Edinburgh)?

"Yeah, I do," Cook says, "but I try to take the positives from every situation. When I walk into that City Pool, it's got something special. Newcastle's provided me with such an inspirational place to train. Yeah, I train in a 25-yard pool, but it just makes me want to beat the people who've got everything even more. It really does."

Born and brought up in Catherine Cookson country at South Shields, and now living in Sting territory at Wallsend, Cook is not the first swimmer to strike a blow for the minnows from Newcastle's City Pool. The City of Newcastle Amateur Swimming Club have produced a rich shoal of talent - notably Sue Rolph, the Commonwealth 100m freestyle champion of 1998, and Sam Foggo, a Barcelona Olympian in 1992. Both were coached by Ian Oliver, the guru who has guided Cook to double Commonwealth gold as a breaststroker, a feat which proved beyond the great David Wilkie in Christchurch in 1974. "Ian has been fantastic," Cook acknowledges. "When we get to a major meet, he's provided me with the tools to do the job. I owe a big portion of my medals to that guy."

It is fortunate for British Swimming that there happens to be a gem like Oliver fighting against the tide of convention up in Newcastle - as well as Midas men like Ian Turner and Dave Haller preparing their charges to take on the world, from the centres of excellence in Loughborough and Swansea. It is also fortunate in the extreme that British Swimming has Bill Sweetenham, the aquatic mastermind the Aussies want back on board now he has performed his Canute trick with little Britain.

It is unfortunate, though, that after the Melbourne gold rush it will probably be back to anonymity, rather than fanfares, for the turners of the Commonwealth tide. "If I get home and it's not such a big thing, then I'll use it to my advantage," Chris Cook pledges. "It'll help motivate me for the next challenge: the European Championships in August."

Flood and Tait under influence of Burke's lore

Like Chris Cook, Mathew Tait has yet to return to Tyneside from Commonwealth Games duty in Melbourne. The Newcastle Falcons centre has moved on to the Hong Kong Sevens following his star turn in the rugby sevens competition in the Telstra Dome, a tour de force that did much to ease the memory of his painful baptism for England as teen- age fodder for Gavin Henson in Cardiff 15 months ago.

His rehabilitation has owed a lot to the guidance of Rob Andrew and his coaching staff at Newcastle, and also to the Falcons' full-back, Matt Burke. "Burkey's just an awesome bloke," Tait said in Melbourne. "He's had a massive calming influence on myself and on the other young guys at the club, like Toby Flood and James Hoyle."

That influence was evident in the rain at Kingston Park on Friday night, as Burke calmly chivvied Flood to a man-of-the-match performance with his quiet but constant encouragement, advice and reassurance through the course of Newcastle's European Challenge Cup quarter-final win against Connacht. Like Tait, Flood is just 20 - and outside-half for England's Under-21s - and another product of Andrew's outstanding academy system.

British swimming has its Aussie architect in Bill Sweetenham, and English (and Newcastle) rugby has its hands-on Aussie nurturer in Matt Burke. The story of the peerless full-back who recovered from a painful international baptism of his own (against France as a 20-year-old) to score 878 points in 81 Tests for the Wallabies (25 of them in winning the 1999 World Cup final for his country) is told in the pages of Matthew Burke: A Rugby Life, sadly published only in Australia.

In it, he writes: "I hope I don't sound like a bit of a tosser here, but rugby has always been an easy and enjoyable game to me." Anyone who can pen a line like that has to be a 24-carat diamond Australian geezer.