Swimming: Mel and the talent pool

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