Swimming: Sexton's gold sets seal on Britain's historic display

World Championships: Bronze for Baker takes nation's medal haul to eight and rounds off best international performance for 43 years
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The Independent Online

A historic world Championships closed last night as a record 12,000 crowd witnessed three more world records and a bronze medal for Zoe Baker, Britain's eighth of the competition - their best return in World Championship history.

It was a weekend of unparalleled success for the British team and the medals kept coming. Katy Sexton became the toast of the team, winning Britain's first individual gold medal at a World Championship and the first at world level for 43 years.

After her silver medal in the 100 metres backstroke earlier in the week, the 21-year-old lined up as one of the favourites for the 200m on Saturday. Gone is the inexperience of the 16-year-old who became Commonwealth champion five years ago. Instead, Sexton is a mentally resilient contender for victory wherever she races. Swimming the perfect race, Sexton attacked the field off the final turn to surge to a historic victory.

Mark Foster took silver in a 50m freestyle event won by the Russian Alexander Popov. These championships have been a revelation for both Popov and Foster. Three golds and a silver for the Russian was an emphatic answer to critics who believed his best days were behind him. Alongside him on the rostrum, Mark Foster, at 33 years of age, finally won the medal his talent has demanded.

It is worthy of note that Foster was given the freedom to prepare for these championships on his own. One year into a two-year programme developed in conjunction with the former hurdler Colin Jackson, Foster swam free from the weight of expectation and delivered silver.

Rebecca Cooke won bronze in the 800m freestyle, also on Saturday, in one of the most courageous swims of her life where she showed a turn of speed in the closing stages that carried her to the most important point in her career so far.

Last night, inspired by a team on a high, Zoe Baker had hoped to repeat James Gibson's gold medal swim in the 50m breaststroke. Baker is the world record holder in the event but despite a superb start, tightened up in the second half yet did enough to hang on for bronze. It is testament to the level to which this British team has risen that she and her team-mates were disappointed that Baker only won bronze.

"Yes, I'm disappointed,'' she said. "But I'm still the record-holder and I'm pleased with that. I felt as though maybe I've over-trained a bit as I didn't have the speed at the end.''

And a new talent has emerged in distance freestyle in the form of the 18-year-old Welshman David Davies. Training under the former British head coach, David Haller, the Cardiff-based swimmer set a best time of 15:05.04 to finish fourth in the 1500m freestyle, ahead of Scotland's Graeme Smith, who came in sixth.

The man in charge of the British renaissance, Bill Sweetenham, is expected not to say he is satisfied with Britain's record medal haul. But the determined attitude of the team and the number of people who will go to next year's Olympic Games with a realistic chance of a medal will give him enormous pride.

The man of the championships has been the American teenager Michael Phelps. Victory in the 400m individual medley last night brought the 18-year-old his third gold medal and fifth world record of the week. On a night that Ian Thorpe was not in action, one could not help wondering if a handover of sorts was taking place.

Both will be the focus of attention in Athens as they vie for the title of the world's best swimmer. While the pool at the Palau San Jordi is only temporary, the mark left on these championships by Phelps will be permanent.

These championships have been truly extraordinary. A staggering 14 world records have been set over eight days of the most competitive swimming in World Championship history. Britain's best performance led to 10 British records being broken, and the team finished in sixth place in the overall medal table. The battle between the Americans and the Australians never materialised as the United States were once again the dominant team at the championships.

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