By Simon Turnbull in Budapest
On Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, the new golden girl of British swimming was dipping her toes back into competitive waters yesterday. This time Kirsty Balfour was unable to bring her Midas touch to bear in the pool named after Alfred Hajos, the Budapest boy who became the first Olympic swimming champion.
The young Edinburgh woman touched the wall seventh in heat three of the women's 50 metres breaststroke at the European Swimming Championships, failing to make the semi-finals.
"It wasn't anything special," she said, after a long, leisurely swim in the warm-down pool. "I didn't sleep that well last night. My legs were throbbing and my arms were throbbing." It was only to be expected. The 50m might be too short for Balfour's breaststroking powers but at 200m only Leisel Jones - "Lethal Jones" as she is known Down Under - can touch her. The Australian world record holder beat the Scot to Commonwealth Games gold in Melbourne in March but in the European final here on Friday evening Balfour was a class apart.
She led from the start, combining smooth technique and relentless drive, and finished 2.76sec clear. In doing so, the 22-year-old from Fairmilehead on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh became Britain's first European champion since Paul Palmer and Sue Rolph in 1999, Scotland's first winner since David Wilkie in 1974 and the first Briton to win the women's 200m breaststroke since Anita Lonsborough in 1962.
"Em, it hasn't really sunk in yet, to be honest, " Balfour said, pausing to ponder the significance of her achievement. "To be a moment in history or whatever, yeah, it's good. It feels really good to boost the team and get one gold medal and to maybe inspire the rest of the team to more."
With one day of competition remaining, the overall British medal tally stands at eight, four more than the historical average, the 4x200m relay quartet of Dave Carry, Simon Burnett, Andy Hunter and Ross Davenport having claimed silver behind Italy in the final event yesterday. The haul could have been higher but the run of near-misses continued, Mel Marshall and Jo Jackson placing fourth and fifth in a 200m freestyle final that produced a shock win for Otylia Jedrzejczak, of Poland, and only a bronze for the French phenomenon Laure Manaudou. Still, with Britain leading the points table, based on placings from eighth to first in finals, and with 18-year-old Kate Haywood qualifying fastest for this afternoon's 50m breaststroke final, Britannia is still riding the wave of a swimming revival after the Commonwealth gold rush.
Balfour, who took a silver in the 100m breaststroke final on Wednesday and who swims in the 4x100m medley relay today, is a shining example of the success of the Bill Sweetenham regime. Her fortunes have been transformed since the national performance director installed the French coach, Fred Vergnoux, at the City of Edinburgh club 18 months ago.
Balfour describes Vergnoux's influence as "huge", though her principal source of inspiration is her Christian faith. "Penny Haynes, the South African swimmer, used to say she liked to use her talent as an act of worship to God, to try to give everything back to Him because He gave it," Balfour reflected. "That's what I try to do as well. It does matter but I think it's also good to realise that there are more important things in life than swimming, to not get too puffed up and proud about it all."
Balfour went to the starting blocks on Friday mentally reciting Matthew 22:37: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all they mind." Another native of Edinburgh, Eric Liddell, had a similar commandment in his head when he raced to Olympic 400m gold on the track in Paris in 1924.
All of which made a welcome departure from Chinese whispers at pool-side about what the Germans may or may not have been doing to inspire their trail-blazing feats. Eyebrows have been raised by the world record performances set in the women's 4x200m and 4x100m relays and in the women's 100m freestyle. Suspicions too. Britta Steffen has featured in all three records and her coach, Norbert Warnatzsch, worked in the old East German system that was not so much tainted as fuelled by drugs.
"I swear Britta is clean," Warnatzsch snapped when the "d" word was put to him, maintaining that weight loss and hard work were behind Steffen's success. Nevertheless, the German swim federation felt the need to announce that they will be introducing comprehensive blood testing of all their swimmers - starting in September.
Not that the suddenly great Britta has been the undisputed star of the show. Manaudou has been a colossus, albeit a vulnerable one. Since blowing out in the heats of the 400m medley on day one, the 19-year-old has bagged three golds, though fatigue caught up with her yesterday in her 14th race of the week. She still has a heat and a final in the 400m freestyle to come but, like David Walliams approaching Cap Griz Nez, the end of her marathon schedule is in sight.Reuse content