Swimming: Sweetenham's 'watery wimps' spark gold rush

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The Independent Online

Ian Thorpe looked on from poolside here as his Commonwealth 200 metres freestyle title passed into English hands on a night when the Poms hit back at their hosts to take two gold and two silver medals.

The previous day British swimmers had been described in one local newspaper headline as "Watery Wimps" - a reference to official calls for Bill Sweetenham, the Australian in charge of British swimming, to rule with more velvet glove and less iron fist.

But with Ross Davenport taking advantage of Thorpe's absence through illness to finish a fraction ahead of his team-mate Simon Burnett in 1min 47.29sec, and with Matthew Clay and Liam Tancock taking gold and silver respectively in the 50m backstroke, England produced a flourish to match that achieved the previous evening by Scotland's two surprise gold medallists, Caitlin McClatchey and David Carry.

It was the first significant success by the new wave of swimmers who have learned their sport under the direction of Sweetenham, who watched with satisfaction from the stands.

Clay, 23, was born in South Africa to British parents but has lived in England since he was six. He is with the British sprint team working in Swansea under Bill Pilczuk, the former world champion. (Pilczuk was not the only American to make a contribution on the night - the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, presented one of the medals.) Davenport, 21, is coached by Sweetenham's No 2, Ian Turner, at Loughborough University, where Tancock also trains. Burnett is being fast-tracked at the University of Arizona.

Although it was Land of Hope and Glory that rang out twice in the canopied, 10,000-capacity venue, England's swimmers clearly see themselves as part of a British challenge to a host nation weakened by the absence of Thorpe and the injured Grant Hackett.

The previous day, Thorpe had enjoyed a joke by the Queen, who had suggested after hearing he had won seven medals at the 2002 Manchester Games that the rest of the Commonwealth should be glad that he was not competing here.

Davenport was glad all over. "It's been a fantastic night for British swimming against the so-called superstars in their own back yard," he said. "We have shown what we are made of and everything is looking good for a great British performance. I am excited about the relay still to come, but I am more excited about Beijing in two years' time."

Davenport, a supporter of his home-town team Derby County, said that in recent months he had altered his approach to competing. "I used to be a little scared pup, but now I look on these events as an opportunity rather than something to be scared of."

His positive attitude was mirrored by that of Clay, who like Davenport was considered the less likely gold medallist for England in his event given that Tancock, who finished 0.06sec behind him in 25.10sec, had qualified with a Games record of 24.84sec.

"It was kind of a shock," Clay said. "I was half a second off the pace going into this race, but I thought there was no reason why I shouldn't win it. My coach is a former world champion and is very cool under pressure. The last words he said to me before I left were, 'I see no reason why you can't do it'. I was determined to swim my own race. I even blacked out my goggles so I couldn't see the others."

That is the kind of tunnel vision that could translate into Olympic success two years hence - or even next year, when Melbourne hosts the World Championships. By then the Aussies will know what to expect.

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