Four years ago, the City of Birmingham swimmer shot through the trials with the fastest times in the world in the 200m and 100m breaststroke which was fine until he came to the Games proper. Then the demands of two distances, and a groin injury, debilitated his attempt on the longer, better event. The result was a bronze to go with silver he had won four years previously.
Yesterday was a much less spectacular affair, Gillingham qualifying third at 100m in a heat time of 64.25sec that proved academic as he promptly announced he was not going to compete in the final anyway. The time was nearly three seconds lower than his mark of 61.33 four years ago - still the British record.
"He did not shave down for the event," Tim Jones, Gillingham's coach, said referring to the swimmer's ritual of removing all his body hair to be smoother in the water. "Nick was using the race for speedwork. He wanted to see what sort of split time he'll do in the 200m and was looking for the low 64s. A time of 64.25 is spot on." The 200m heats and final are tomorrow.
The decision is an acknowledgement that Gillingham's body is less than perfect for the shorter distance. At 5ft 11in and 111/2 stone he hardly risks having sand kicked in his face on the beach, but the event is about power and at the 50m-mark he is usually following in the slipstream of gargantuan opponents. A sweet stroke, arguably the most perfect technically in the world, allows him to catch up over 200m; at 100m he has little chance.
"When you are talking about the pinnacles of any sport," Jones said. "You get to the stage where specialist performers take over. Nick's experience four years ago showed you can perform properly in only one event."
Which is a message that has been ignored by Paul Palmer, who began his exhausting assault on three individual places in the Olympic team by qualifying for the Games in the 200m freestyle, his weakest event notwithstanding a silver medal at the 1993 European Championships.
His time of 1min 49.64sec should be judged in the context of his reaching tonight's final of the 1500m freestyle as third-fastest in 14:48.70. This was well inside the Olympic qualifying time but behind the two swimmers who will be hoping to edge him out of the two qualifying places, Ian Wilson and Graeme Smith.
"I'm tired and relieved," Palmer, who is also racing in the 400m freestyle, said. "I tried to save myself in the 1500m but it is still going to take it out of you. How they could arrange the 200m and the 1500m heats on the same day is beyond me."
Sarah Hardcastle, a double Olympic medallist 12 years ago, also had, what on paper, appeared to be a wearying day. She ensured a place in the women's 400m individual medley at Atlanta after reaching the final of the 800m freestyle in the morning but said: "No, I was fine. I didn't have to go too hard in the 800m. I don't want it to sound derogatory to the others in the slightest, but I could afford to take it easy."
Which is very far from how she could be in the medley as Lucy Findlay had a two second lead after 300 metres. "I thought if I could keep within five metres of her going into the freestyle I'd have a chance," the 26- year-old from Bracknell said. "That last length killed me, I thought I was going to be sick." Nevertheless she won by more than two seconds in 4min 51.07sec, her best time since returning to the sport in the autumn of 1992.
Karen Pickering, winner of four bronze medals in the European Championships last August, was quick enough to qualify for Atlanta in the heats of the women's 100m freestyle. So the final should have been a formality. Instead Sue Rolph, a 17-year-old from Newcastle, chased her all the way breaking her personal best by 0.7sec with 56.01. Both will be going to the Games.
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