Sydney tide turns in favour of new girls

James Parrack says swimming's fresh faces need old heads this week
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The Independent Online

This is the week in British swimming when tension and emotion hit fever pitch, where tears will be shed in joy and despair in equal measure; and that's just by the spectators.

This is the week in British swimming when tension and emotion hit fever pitch, where tears will be shed in joy and despair in equal measure; and that's just by the spectators.

The Olympic trials run from Tuesday to Sunday in Sheffield, and it is the only swimming meet in the world where second place is as sweet as victory.

Three swimmers were preselected for Sydney from last year's European Championships; Paul Palmer in the 400m freestyle, Sue Rolph in the 100m freestyle, and Alison Sheppard in the 50m freestyle. Britain's other Olympic medal hopes in the pool this week include Mark Foster in the 50m freestyle; Graeme Smith, Olympic bronze-medallist from Atlanta, in the 1500 metres; and James Hickman and Steve Parry in the butterfly events. Qualification for this group should be a formality.

For the rest, it is about making the qualifying standards, and this is the only week they can do it. A maximum of two swimmers can be selected in each event, but both must make a tough qualifying time. To miss by 0.01sec is to miss the team. The Olympic Games is the Holy Grail of swimming, and casts a spell on the sport worldwide. Once every four years, you have just one swim to fulfil your wildest dreams, or to be faced with four more years of early mornings and soul-destroying training before the next opportunity.

The one event that is steaming up the goggles this week is the women's 200m backstroke. Three swimmers have been trading British records and international medals over the last two years and, as each of them knows, three into two simply won't go.

Portsmouth's Katy Sexton, 18, is the Commonwealth champion; Helen Don-Duncan, 19, is Manchester's world short-course silver-medallist; and the newcomer is 18-year-old Jo Fargus, from Bath, who took Sexton's British record at the European Championships in Helsinki earlier this month, when she finished fourth.

Fargus arrived at Bath late last year to train at the élite centre there under Ian Turner, who also coaches Paul Palmer. Her father is based in Hong Kong and she and her mother were living and training on Australia's Gold Coast when Turner arrived there for a training camp with the British team. One short conversation and one long training session later, Fargus opted to come back to the United Kingdom to train. Her progress since her return has been staggering, her technique faultless, but even as she celebrated her successes in Helsinki, she knew that the most important race of her life so far would be the one at the trials.

Another stellar junior making a big impression in the senior ranks is 17-year-old Rebecca Cooke, from Reading, who shot to international recognition during the short-course World Cup series in February this year.

She took home $8,000 for winning both the 400m and 800m freestyle categories, and closed to within 1.6sec of Sarah Hardcastle's 800m freestyle record. She demonstrated a healthy lack of respect for form by beating many of the top names in the event, including the reigning Olympic champion, the American Brooke Bennett. Successfully making the transition to long-course, she then finished fourth in Helsinki, and, like Fargus, said that the European Championships were just part of her build-up to the trials.

The good news is that time is on their side. But both will hope that the winning times are on their side this week if they are to fulfil their lifetime ambitions and swim in the Olympic Games.