Swimming: Price renaissance inspired by sister's wisdom

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The Independent Online

Sarah Price will start as one of the favourites for the 100 and 200 metres backstroke when the swimming events start at the World Championships here on Sunday. But it is thanks to a lengthy heart-to-heart with her sister in the south of Spain five years ago that Price is even here.

The 24-year-old is one of a growing number of British swimmers who have a realistic chance of bringing back medals next week, and at the Athens Olympic Games next year. But in 1996 she had already decided to retire from the sport.

That was a year when there was no performance director in swimming, no lottery funding and no élite performance centres. It was the time when the Olympic silver medallist Paul Palmer called upon the then Prime Minister, John Major, to provide central funding for sport. It was the year that the divers Bob Morgan and Tony Ally were selling their Olympic tracksuits at the Atlanta Games to earn themselves some extra cash.

It was the time when Price missed qualifying for the Olympics and was forced to train with the rest of her team-mates at Barnet Copthall in north London.

As a 16-year-old, Price was angry and frustrated. She made up the numbers at an international meet in Rome and was a rebellious teenager who saw no point in carrying on with something that was breaking her heart.

A year later she was at the élite training centre in Bath, with a small grant from the lottery and desperately missed being at home. Travelling from Bath to London every weekend was compromising the whole point of her training and after another disappointment at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, she decided to retire from the sport.

"I'm really close to my sister, Emma, who is two years older than me and who lives in Spain," Price recalls.

"I went to stay with her for two months. One night we sat up talking for hours. At the time my life was a mess and we talked about everything. At the end of it, she said: 'Sarah, you have been given this talent and you shouldn't waste it. You can't just quit. You can't spend the rest of your life wondering what would have happened'." And this was the moment Sarah Price changed her life.

"It was simple. All my priorities changed. All I wanted was to do everything I could for my swimming. Nothing else mattered."

She returned to Barnet, where there was now a new coach, Reece Gormley, who knew what to do with her talent. He saw she was a ferocious trainer who was able to withstand a brutal training programme. So he set out to punish her. Recognising that she had the stroke for the 200m, rather than the 50 and 100 she was then racing, Gormley gave her tougher and tougher work-outs.

"Reece gave me so much confidence, because the training we were doing was so hard. I knew that if I could just recreate in a race the sort of times I was doing in training, I could be among the best in the world. I just needed time for everything to come together," she said.

And it all came together spectacularly in August 2001.

After the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, where Britain won an impressive seven medals, the new performance director, Bill Sweetenham, flew the team directly to the Australian Short Course Championships in Perth. With the pressure off, and swimming for the first time internationally in her new event, Price stunned everyone with a world record in the 200m backstroke.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "No one could believe it. But Reece had been telling me I was capable of this all year. After that, I barely put a foot wrong." Price rewrote all the British backstroke records and won two gold and two bronze medals at last year's Commonwealth Games to become the most celebrated swimmer of the current generation. And yet she heads into the World Championships ranked second in the world, and only second in Britain.

Contributing to Price's success has been the embarrassment of riches in British backstroke. Four girls traded the British record between them, pushing the domestic standard to the dizzying heights of the top of the world rankings. And when the dust settled at this year's World Championship trials, only two were left standing: Price, and the current record holder, Portsmouth's Katy Sexton, who was winning gold at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games while Price had thought about retirement.

"If anything, going in as number two has made me even more determined," Price said. "I have times in my head that I want to hit, and if they bring me medals then great. If not, then...." And Price does not finish the sentence. In her mind, there is no, "if not", just as now, thanks to Emma, there is no "what if?"