Swimming: Sweetenham 'tough love' regime proves its worth

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The Independent Online

The British team arrived home yesterday after a stunning end to their most successful European Championships. Thirteen medals, including two gold, surpassed all expectations, and this from a championships which proved the most fiercely competitive in the event's long history.

The achievement should not be underestimated at a championships which always give a clue as to who, from Europe, now has a chance to go on to win medals at the World Championships in Melbourne in March, and then at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

There is one person, however, who started six hours of meetings yesterday with the look of a man who saw all this coming years ago. Bill Sweetenham arrived in 2000 to take over a programme that had been started four years earlier. It was not until the arrival of the Australian, though, that things really moved into top gear and his influence on the team's success at these championships has been remarkable: proof, if any more were needed, that the years of hard work are starting to pay off.

There can be none who still doubts the continued application of the tough love Sweetenham has been handing out since his arrival here. "The performance of this team has been outstanding," Sweetenham said on Sunday. "And you need to remember that we had nine fourth-place finishes. We have about 12 events where we will in the zone for Beijing, and if half of those win medals, that would be a good result. Those medals will be won by the philosophy we use in training from now on where we need perfection under pressure before we can expect the performance under pressure. We still need major surgery in some areas and that starts tomorrow morning. It only gets harder from here, but the athletes and coaches on this team have the talent to be successful."

Yet it is too easy to assume that a good performance at the Commonwealth Games and Europeans is an indicator of success at world and Olympic level. It is not, and Sweetenham knows that there is still an important piece missing: Britain has no one who can lay claim to being a world No 1. Even in Britain's best events, women's breaststroke and sprint freestyle, and the men's 4x200 metres freestyle team, there is a dauntingly long way to go even to reach the heels of the very best in the world.

Despite fielding the most successful team at the championships, winning the points competition by some distance, Britain finished seventh in the medals table. Only Italy and France won more medals, but with two golds, the British are not yet producing the champions.

On his arrival, Sweetenham said the first task was to make finals, then to put athletes on the rostrum and only then they will start to win golds. But is a major leap from European silver and bronze to Olympic gold.

Sweetenham has set about producing the milk; now he is waiting for the cream to rise. For it to reach the top will probably take until London in 2012.

Diva power: Driving Britain's pool of talent

* KIRSTY BALFOUR

Two golds and a silver make the 22-year-old from Edinburgh the most successful British swimmer ever at a European Championships. Balfour recorded the sixth-fastest time ever in the 200 metres breaststroke at the Commonwealth Games in melbourne this year, and is three seconds clear of anyone else in Europe.

* FRANCESCA HALSALL

Fourth in the individual 100m freestyle, and nearly five years younger than anyone else in that final, the 16-year-old from Southport anchored the medley relay to gold on the final night in Budapest, holding off the world record holder, Britta Steffen of Germany. Perhaps the most talented of Bill Sweetenham's generation so far.

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