Swimming: Sexton displays a stroke of genius

Countdown to Athens: Britain's world-beater bemoans poor facilities but sets sights on scaling Olympic heights
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The Independent Online

Even without her newly won celebrity, Katy Sexton would catch the eye as she strides through Portsmouth's Gunwharf Quay. At 5ft 11in, she possesses a statuesque, Jodie Kidd-like physique, which her heeled boots accentuate. These days, the glances from the public on their pre-Christmas spending binges at the city's shopping centre tend to be ones of admiration for the local woman's sporting achievements, not just her appearance.

In Barcelona back in July, she produced a devastating final length to claim the 200 metres backstroke prize and establish herself as the first British woman swimmer to win an individual world gold. That ascendancy in the water hadn't provoked such delight on the south coast since the raising of the Mary Rose.

It was another famous Victory for the naval port to place alongside Nelson's. Yet it was a remarkable one, not least because all her pre-race plans had to be jettisoned. "I fell asleep in the middle of the race and had to sprint the last length," Sexton recalls insouciantly. Indeed, she was only fourth at one stage. Did that concern her?

She laughingly chides a man for whom a sluggish breaststroke is the limit of his abilities: "Er, have you ever tried swimming on your back?" She explains: "In backstroke, you can't look about you. You can only catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye when you turn. So you just have to swim your individual race." So, you weren't aware you'd won? "No idea," she admits. "Not until I looked up and saw the result. When I did, it was a fantastic feeling. I wanted it so much."

In doing so, Sexton established a British and Commonwealth record of 2min 08.74sec, defeating the American Margaret Hoelzer by half a second. "I don't think I appreciate being world champion as I should do," she says. "It's something I'll probably reflect on more when I'm older. For the moment, it's just another medal to add to my collection."

Should she repeat the feat in Athens, it will be despite the traditional shortcomings we have come to associate with British sport. Imagine this: major competitions take place in a 50-metre pool. She trains in a pool conveniently located at HMS Temeraire, the Royal Navy sports facility in Portsmouth. The problem is that it measures only 33.3 metres.

"There is an Olympic-sized one at Aldershot, but at the moment the boom's broken," Sexton says. "Apart from that, the only full-sized pool is at Crystal Palace. It makes it hard to practise." It must be frustrating, you attempt to commiserate with her. "It's shocking, really," she says. "Compared to what the Americans and Australians have. Last January, I was out in Australia training and we were at a boys' school and the facility we were using was a 12-lane 50-metre pool. We haven't got that in the whole country."

There was more than lack of facilities to blame for what happened at the 2000 Olympics, when Britain's swimmers returned without a medal. "Sydney certainly wasn't the best for swimming, though I did my best when I was out there," says Sexton. "I made the final, so I couldn't really ask for much more. The problem is that you get labelled as a team and you all go down together." But it's true overall that there were a lot of things wrong. "We were probably too relaxed. We weren't tough enough in our attitude."

In her spare time, Sexton enjoys the movies. The most recent was Tarantino's Kill Bill. Apt really. Sounds like what she would like to do, at times, to the Australian Bill Sweetenham, who became national performance director after Sydney. "He's given us a real kick up the backside," she says. "Nobody likes change, and there was a lot of grumbles to start with. He has upset some people. But he's changed our attitude, made us work together more as a team and be more positive. There have been times when he's coached me, and I've thought, 'Oh, go away', but sometimes you need to be pushed. He's made sure that the team have swimmers who want to achieve, and are not just there for trips around the world."

Her own inspiration comes from Paula Radcliffe and Sir Steve Redgrave. Oh, and David Beckham. Any reason for the latter? "He's quite nice-looking. That's probably the main reason," she says, blushing. "And I like Prince William. I share a birthday with him, same day, same year." That date was 21 June 1982. It did not take long for her to acquire some metaphorical flippers. "I've always been a water-baby. Even when I was in the bath, I loved splashing around. I could swim when I was three, and joined my swimming club, Portsmouth Northsea, when I was five."

Chris Nisbet, her coach, oversees an arduous training schedule: a six-day week involves a total of 30 hours in the water, swimming 70,000 metres.

Her parents, Faye, a junior-school teachers' assistant, and Ken, formerly a prison officer, but now medically retired, together with sister Kelly and Sexton's boyfriend, Dean, a Portsmouth University student, provide her with constant support. That was required two years ago when she suffered a damaged nerve in her shoulder blade. She continued training, but was advised by her physio not to use her arms. She had to restrict herself to just kicking in the water for six months.

"At one time, I got very depressed. I thought: 'What am I doing this for? I could just give up now.' But it's made me stronger. When you can't do something you love doing, it makes you even more determined to get back in there."

Next Thursday sees the start of the European Championships in Dublin, followed by the next major test of her progress, the Olympic trials in April. Then Athens. "I know the pressure's going to be on me; it's just a question of using it as a positive," she says. "I do get very, very nervous. Before my start at Barcelona, I felt really sick. But once the gun's fired, I'm fine." It will be the cannons of the Victory that will be firing once more if she returns as the pride of Pompey.