Swimming medal hopes in at deep end: Marshall the veteran of blood and sweat takes plunge with water baby Halsall

England's former world No 1 and a rising star tell Nick Harris how they aim to make waves at the Commonwealth Games
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The Independent Online

Melanie Marshall and Fran Halsall are women with contrasting missions at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Both are English freestyle swimmers and both have something to prove next week, but there the similarities end.

Marshall, at 24, is the relative veteran, with one so-so Commonwealth Games and one disappointing Olympics behind her. Australia offers a shot at redemption.

Halsall, at 15, will be attending her first senior meet. She is a rising star who was on the shortlist for the 2005 BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year along with the sprinter Harry Aikines- Aryeetey (who won), and Arsenal's teenage football prodigy, Theo Walcott. But no one, including herself, is expecting her to come home with a medal.

Gaining big-event experience while avoiding the pitfalls that snared Marshall is her aim.

Marshall went to the 2004 Olympics as one of the country's brightest swimming hopes. Then 22, she was the world No 1 in her main event, the 200 metres freestyle. She appeared to embody the work ethic of Bill Sweetenham, the British performance director - work until you drop, and then do it all again.

After one memorable, gut- busting, record-breaking swim at the pre-Olympics trials in Sheffield, the straight talker from Lincolnshire emerged from the pool to gasp to a poolside camera crew: "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm trying not to vomit." She gave an interview anyway, with blood dripping down her face as a team official nicked her flesh to take a blood sample.

Yet when she arrived in Athens, she flopped. She failed even to make the 200m final, clocking the slowest time of 16 semi-finalists.

"Embarrassing" and "just awful," were among Marshall's own post-swim assessments. "This isn't just four years of hard work wasted, it's 15 years," she said. "Gutted would be an understatement."

Talking about it now, she admits that the weight of expectation pulled her under.

"In Athens I lost sight of 'how to' and was preoccupied with 'should do'," she says. "That kind of pressure is something that you impose on yourself and I know now that I need to steer clear of those self-imposed expectations.

"Yes, I went into the Games as the fastest in the world that year, so of course I knew how to do it. But I lost sight of it.

"People who succeed at Olympics are those who aren't bothered [by the occasion]. I got affected. I guess the older I get, I worry less about the things I can't control [like outside expectations]. Six or seven months ago I stopped worrying about that. I've forgotten about all the crap I can't control."

She says that her recent training "has been the best for a long time. And my expectations? To enjoy it." She will swim her best event, the 200m free, first, followed by the 200m backstroke ("In world swimming I'm nowhere near, but in the Commonwealths, who knows?"), then all the relays.

Some of the main men's contenders have withdrawn or are doubtful. Not so in the women's events. "The big guns on the women's side for the Aussies will be there," Marshall says. "And fully loaded. The eyes aren't on us, but on the Australians. We're the underdogs. People don't want to hear, 'I'll do this and this' from us, and that's how I like it. We'll hopefully show what we can do in the pool."

One glance at the 2006 rankings in the women's 200m free shows quite how dominant the Australians are. Nine of the fastest 10 times this year have been swum by Aussies, but Marshall's best time in 2005 was quicker than all of those, placing her third in the world.

Sweetenham, an Australian, has no official Commonwealth Games role because this is not a British team event. The swimmers will be representing their individual countries. But he plays a significant role in the sporting lives of all Britain's top-class swimmers, including Marshall.

Some of those who have competed under his regime, especially the older swimmers, have been critical of his methods, which led, indirectly, to an investigation into allegations of bullying, which found him not guilty. Marshall's view seems cautiously positive. "Like any boss, you agree with some things, not with others. You're always going to get some people who aren't happy and some who are really happy.

"I'd have to say I'm on the fence. A lot of changes he made [since arriving in 2000] have been very positive. Him giving me a good kick up the arse now and again, for example. But there are occasions when it's not a kick up the arse you need but an arm around the shoulder. Getting that balance right is hard. But we're all moving forward with it."

Halsall, from Liverpool, is a 100m freestyle specialist who will also contest the 50m free and 4x100m free relay, and offers a different perspective. "I think it's been great under Bill, all good," she says.

"He tells you how it is, of course. If you swim badly, he'll let you know. But he does it in a positive way, quite calmly, saying, 'Do this or do that' specifically. I really listen because he knows what he's talking about.

"I know some people might think he's a shouter, but maybe that's more with the seniors. I've never had that."

Halsall's aim is to make a final in Australia, where the 100m free could quite possibly see a home 1-2-3 on the podium, via, in some order, Jodie Henry (a triple gold medallist in Athens, including the 100m free title), Libby Lenton (a recent world record breaker in the event) and Alice Mills.

"My goal is a final," says Halsall. "Anything else is a bonus. This is my first major senior meet so it's all about being part of a team, experiencing the village, basically heading in the right direction for the Olympics in 2008. If I can make a final, great, and of course if [I do] I'll be trying to medal. But really it's a good way to get exposed."

Halsall pauses before rattling off her envisaged plan. "Commonwealths in 2006, World Championships in 2007, Beijing 2008, and then 2012 in London. I'll be 22 then, what a buzz that would be."

Marshall was 22 in 2004, but then she was, in swimming terms, a late developer. Halsall already has a European junior gold (100m free), silver (50m) and bronze (4x200m relay) to her name from last year, which prompted her BBC nomination.

"To be in a room [at the awards] with your sporting idols was amazing," she says. "Jose Mourinho, Gavin Henson, the Athens badminton medallists, Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe..." She trails off, still unbelieving.

Marshall is not keen on dishing out advice. "It's hard to say anything that isn't too obvious," she says. "But enjoy it. Live every second. These opportunities don't come round too often. This is what we want to do, to swim. So remember, whatever happens, life doesn't get any better than that." Setbacks and all.