Swimming: Mel and the talent pool

Swimming is one of a host of sports in Britain where girl power shines powerfully through

It is mid-morning at the Loughborough University pool and a trickle of recreational swimmers are passing through reception, ready to jump into the water just about to be vacated by the campus's aquatic elite. This happens to be home to the core of Great Britain's international swimming squad, although the mass of notices pinned to the foyer wall give it the earthy feel of your average local baths. Appropriately so.

"Well done, Caitlin," one note says, congratulating Caitlin McClatchey on her award as British Universities Sports-woman of the Year. It would have been nice if the Loughborough politics undergraduate had got a mention on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, but then Britain's swimmers are stuck in the back- waters of the national sporting consciousness, it would seem.

This has been a vintage year for them, with record hauls of medals from both the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and the European Championships in Budapest, and yet still the likes of McClatchey, who broke the stranglehold of the formidable Australian women's team in Melbourne with gold medal swims in the 200m and 400m freestyle, have to settle for fringe recognition.

"Yeah, it's quite surprising that swimming didn't feature in the top 10 in the Sports Personality of the Year, because we've had a very successful year," Mel Marshall says, resting on a seat in a side room following her two-and-a-half-hour morning shift in the pool.

"I look back at people like Kirsty Balfour, double European gold medallist; Caitlin, double Commonwealth gold medallist... What more do we need to do? We have had a very, very successful year - very good indeed."

Marshall has had a good year too. In Melbourne she won six medals: silver in the 200m backstroke, the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, the 4 x 200m freestyle relay and the 4 x 100m medley relay; and bronze in the 200m freestyle and 100m backstroke.

It was a record haul for a female swimmer in an English Commonwealth Games team, and it was followed by two more medals in Budapest: bronze in the 200m backstroke and gold in the 4 x 100m medley relay. In this "best-ever" year for British swimming, Marshall has come top of the medal pile with eight.

Not that the Loughborough sports science student would stake a claim to being Britain's swimmer of the year. "No," she says, emphatically. "Eight medals is good, but for me it has been a year for quantity, not quality. I don't see the quality of what I have delivered being as high as that from a lot of people."

True, in terms of achievement in a specialist event, Marshall has not sparkled anything like as brightly as Balfour or McClatchey. Primarily a 200m freestyler, Marshall finished third in her specialist event in Melbourne and fourth in Buda-pest. She ends the year ranked eighth in the world. Balfour, Britain's only individual gold medal winner in Budapest and a team-mate of Marshall in the winning medley relay squad, is ranked third in the world in the 200m breaststroke. McClatchey ranks third in the 200m freestyle.

Nevertheless, it was Marshall who was singled out for praise in the end-of-year report compiled by Bill Sweetenham, British Swimming's national performance director - not a man renowned for the lauding of swimmers, in public least of all. "Melanie was an excellent leader and provided outstanding support for other athletes on the team," he wrote. "I cannot praise her enough. She has proved an example to all our athletes."

In his six years as Britain's performance director, Sweetenham has been obliged to overcome unfounded allegations of bullying levelled against him by swimmers who have been unwilling to toe his hard-line approach to training and preparation. Under the shrewd, painstaking direction of the bluff Australian, though, British swimming has not only reached unparalleled heights of medal-winning success in 2006 but also baptised a potentially golden generation of youngsters in senior international competition.

At the European Short Course Championships in Helsinki a fortnight ago, four teenaged British girls won medals. At the long course European Championships in Budapest in the summer, the 16-year-old Fran Halsall anchored the 4 x 100m medley team to victory. Marshall stood cheering her at poolside, having swum the lead-off leg.

"It was a proud feeling," Marshall says, recalling that golden moment. "Fran's very much her own person, and it's all down to her and her coach and the people she works with. But if Fran's having a bad day I'd like to think I'm the sort of person she could go up to and say, 'Mel, I'm having a shit day. Make me feel a bit better'. And I could do that.

"I am a senior figure now, at 24. I can see what the younger ones are thinking and I like to talk to them and help them out. It is a unique crop of talent that we have. I see what they are doing now and I see so much more for them in their future careers. I mean, they are only just starting."

It is eight years now since Marshall started as a teenager in the British senior team, and in terms of the expectation that Halsall and Co are likely to have to bear on the road to the London Olympics of 2012, the 24-year-old veteran from Boston in Lincolnshire has been there and got the swimsuit.

She went to the 2004 Olympics in Athens as a major contender for gold, ranked No 1 in the 200m freestyle. She still topped the world rankings after the Games but failed to get close to a medal in the pool. The slowest of the 16 semi-finalists, Marshall did not make the final.

"I am kind of glad of it," she reflects now, "because it's made me a stronger person. It's made me a more rounded individual. It was awful afterwards, because I felt I had done everything - probably too much of everything - and it felt that it wasn't fair. But once you realise that there is life beyond swimming and the Olympic Games, you get back on the train and start going forward again."

The Olympic medal podium remains the ultimate destination for Marshall's swimming dreams, and in the hope of getting there in Beijing the summer after next - and of recapturing her pre-Olympic form from 2004 - she has left her coach of six years, Ben Titley, and joined the Loughborough group guided by Ian Turner, the head coach of the British team. "It was just time for me to make a change," she says.

Ultimately, though, after Beijing in 2008 or London in 2012, Marshall has a broader vision than the winning of medals in the swimming pool. "I want to go to Africa and do voluntary work for a year and a half, two years," she says. "It sounds noble or whatever, but I just want to help, to make a small bit of difference. I have been to Africa. I've travelled through it. And it does give you a sense of life. It does give you a... well, 'Wow, I get to go to the toilet', and 'I get to have a shower, just in a normal environment'. I think it does make you appreciate everything that you've got."

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux / Redhat / Solaris / Puppet / SAN

£65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape