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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living