Nurturing a pool of talent

Ireland puts out the welcome mat for the woman who made Atlanta her own as Britain home in on the secret for Sydney
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The Independent Online
As British hopes, if not quite the swimmers who carried them, sank like stones in Atlanta, the familiar complaints abounded. They ran through the usual range: lack of facilities, advice, effort and above all money.

Paul Palmer's silver medal in the 400 metres freestyle was a relief both to those eager for British swimming success and those interested in seeing Britain win a medal in any event. It provided the 21-year-old from Lincoln with a perfect platform which he did not waste, making pertinent and touching calls for more support for his sport.

This could not save the swimmers from having contumely heaped on them from a great height by the former breaststroke gold medallist David Wilkie. After castigating their performances as an embarrassment which lacked pride he said he felt ashamed. But he, too, wanted funds.

It would be easy to deduce from such remarks and other general criticism that not only was Britain once a swimming power which bestrode the world's pools but also that nothing was being done to rectify matters. Neither is quite true. In the history of the Games this country has claimed 35 swimming medals in those events still being contested, an average of fewer than two an Olympiad which with Graeme Smith's medal we have exceeded this time. There have been five finalists in 1996, several more personal best times.

In 1976 when Wilkie won gold in the 200m and silver in the 100 he was alone in winning medals. There were only four other finalists in both men's and women's events, which hardly made it vintage stuff. Nor should the mistake be made of assuming those in the Amateur Swimming Association are sitting at the side of a baths somewhere contemplating their navels. True, the organisation is desperately short of money, but it has established Swim 2000.

Geared to bringing young swimmers to a peak by the Sydney Games, perhaps it should have been formed several decades ago. Instead it arrived in 1993 at the instigation of a later breaststroke gold medallist than Wilkie, the 100m victor in Seoul, Adrian Moorhouse. At least it is a genuine effort at developing, if not cosseting, the elite young.

Take David Nuttall and Melanie Marshall, two of its recent members. Both of them were quick to point to the Swim 2000 national camps as being crucial to personal improvements. Nuttall, a 1500m freestylist from Wigan, said: "A video was taken of my style and it was spotted that my arms were coming into the water sloppily. It was hard to change to bringing them in straight but I managed."

The result has been an improvement in David's personal best of 19 seconds, a reward which has convinced him of Swim 2000's merits. The shortcoming in his stroke was spotted, incidentally, by Ian Turner, coach to last week's hero Palmer.

Melanie, 14, who swims 100m freestyle, has been delighted at the opportunity to train with her peers. As a member of the small Boston club in Lincolnshire the difficulties of sophisticated and intensive training could otherwise have been multiplied.

"You get important information at camps," she said. "You get to know your team-mates and I've also improved my breathing and have raised my elbows. I couldn't believe the improvements. My fastest time is down by six seconds."

Swim 2000 possibly remains a primitive structure compared to the magnificent coaching edifices which other countries have apparently constructed and both Nuttall and Marshall said that three camps a year, cut to two this year, were insufficient. But it has helped to keep them going.

Nuttall said: "I've just left school. I'm going to college and I've had to give up my paper round. I'm permanently broke and the times of training sessions make it impossible to take a job." His female counterpart has had the difficult choice to make between swimming and other sports. Swim 2000 may have helped her decide.

Both will be at Crystal Palace for the national age group event this week which will determine their continued membership of the project. Next week they go to Copenhagen for the European junior championships where both have outside chances of a medal. But it is a medal in Sydney at which their lives are aimed.

Swim 2000 caters for age groups from 12 to 16 and the range may widen. The numbers are reduced as members get older so coaches can give more detailed help. This year a pilot scheme for the 16 group will concentrate on issues other than swimming, like career planning, time management and, naturally, raising money. In the end, for Palmer, Wilkie, Moorhouse and everybody at the ASA any hope for Sydney rests on that.