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Swims like a butterfly, stings like a bee

THE INTERNATIONAL pool at Leeds has seen better days and the cafe needs a facelift, but this is home for James Hickman, Commonwealth gold medallist, world record holder and, by common consent, Britain's best hope for swimming gold at Sydney next year.

THE INTERNATIONAL pool at Leeds has seen better days and the cafe needs a facelift, but this is home for James Hickman, Commonwealth gold medallist, world record holder and, by common consent, Britain's best hope for swimming gold at Sydney next year.

Hickman is 23 and swims butterfly, 100m and 200m. In Kuala Lumpur at the last Commonwealth Games, he was controversially disqualified for a false start in the 100m, then went out and won the 200 gold by a street. "A point to prove," he laughs. "I was under world record time for 150 metres, then hung on for grim death." Others discerned the mentality of a champion.

The build-up to the Olympics started soon after Atlanta, but the laying down of markers will begin in earnest at the European

Championships in Istanbul this week. Butterfly swimmers are an exclusive community; they know their enemy. Hickman reckons he could name most of the finalists in Sydney already: Dennis Pankratov, the 200m world record holder, in the longer distance, Franck Esposito, the Ukrainian Denis Sylantyev and the Japanese guy called Yamamoto, whose first name he has temporarily forgotten (it is Takashi). There is an American, a young Russian too and, inevitably, a couple of Australians, including the world record holder,

Michael Klim. "I know those are the ones who will be strong in Sydney, just as they know I will be strong," he says.

Hickman logs into the SwimNews.Com Internet site to check on their progress. They will do the same, noting with interest Hickman's two British records in the national championships last weekend. The rivalry is personal, intense and, mostly, long-distance. Their faces peer at Hickman every morning as he contemplates another 7am training session. "That's not bad," he says. "At school, it was 5.30, on winter mornings. I still wake up some times and think, 'Do I really have to do this?' But I know that somewhere in the world there is a Russian and an Australian getting up and doing it. So I'm not going to stay in bed while some geezer tries to beat me. There's not that much between us so maybe that one training session will make the difference."

Hickman's life is spent in constant dialogue with the clock. The world record for the 100m long course - 50m pool as opposed to the 25m pool for the short course - is 52.1 seconds. Hickman's personal best is 52.8. For the 200m, he has swum one minute 57.1, 1.9 seconds outside Pankratov's world record. Four years devoted to a beat over two seconds. He clicks his fingers. "Yeah, that's all you're looking for. Why would someone want to do that? I don't know, but I have this stupid conception that I'm the best butterfly swimmer in the world and because I want to prove that to everyone, that means I have to become the Olympic champion. I don't know where that drive came from. I just think I can be the best at what I want to do."

Becoming European champion is important to Hickman, not in itself, but because of what it means for his progress towards Sydney. He wants to swim the Olympic qualifying time first and, beyond that, put himself within realistic distance of an Olympic winning time so that he has a sharper sense of purpose on those winter mornings. Beating his main European rivals will do no harm to his self-confidence in the delicate game of pre- Olympic charades.

Not that confidence has ever been a problem for Hickman. From the day he won four national titles at the age of 14, then defended them all successfully the following year, he has marked himself out as different. One of the crowd, yet, as he says himself, above it, a child who seemed to have his eyes fixed on more distant horizons than the rest.

"I do like the limelight," he admits. "So I've always wanted to do a bit better so that I can have more of it. Even when I was younger I still wanted to excel. It's not arrogance perhaps as much as a selfish need for attention." He is the only boy in his family; he has two elder half- sisters and a younger full sister. "It's odd, I've always had a lot of attention, so maybe I'm scared of the lack of attention."

There is a neat fit between Hickman's natural flamboyance and the most arduous and intense of swimming disciplines. All strokes require commitment, but only butterfly reveals the full expression of it. As anyone who has emptied the local pool after a length will testify, butterfly is the extrovert's stroke, a thrashing melee of arms, legs and water up the nose which demands an elastic flexibility and boxer's shoulders. At six feet and 74 kilos, Hickman is small for the modern generation of leviathan swimmers, but butterfly is as much about fluency as power. His manoeuvrability and speed on the turn is a particular attribute in short course where he lopped nearly a second off the 200m world record in Paris last year.

When he gets the timing right, the subtle co-ordination of arm swing and leg kick, Hickman says the 70 or so strokes of a 100m race can feel effortless. "You get days when you are just hauling yourself through the water, but when you get it right, that sort of Dolphin movement up and down, it flows. I don't get the same feeling from any other stroke."

Victory in the European Championships would heighten the celebrity status of Hickman, a Mancunian in exile in Leeds. Never one to underact, his mock horror at learning that his world records had been nullified earned him an award for "wind-up of the month" on a local radio station. He writes a column in the Manchester Evening News and is full value for his lucrative sponsorship deal with Speedo.

Only in Sydney, though, will Hickman measure his true worth. "One person on the blocks for the final will know he is going to win," he says. "The others will think they can win." Encouragingly for British medal prospects, Hickman genuinely believes the odd one out will be him.