OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Americans' water-power: Guy Hodgson looks at contrasting US and British expectations in the swimming pool

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IT was a throwback to the Seventies. Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water' belted out of the tannoy this week as the United States swimming squad practised. It is a team, like its counterparts of two decades ago, with an expectation that it is about to be dripping with gold.

The song has been adopted by the American swimmers as their theme - smoke being their slang for speed - but it recalls an era when Olympic pools used to echo not to rock music but to the 'Star Spangled Banner' ad nauseam: 21 times in 1968, 17 in 1972. In each of those Games Americans broke five world records on a single day.

In the intervening years the flow went to the old world rather than the new so that four years ago only two Americans stood on the winner's podium to salute the anthem. True that duo, Matt Biondi and Janet Evans, heard it often enough to know the words backwards, but eight individual golds represented a poor strike rate for a nation that had once dominated.

This time the Americans, the danger of the Chinese notwithstanding, promise it will be different. Not only have the Eastern Bloc countries, cut off from the cash supply by the collapse of Communism, declined, but the US team is superior to four years ago: nine world record holders, and 13 of the team will be taking part in their second Olympics.

'This team has not put any barriers in front of ourselves,' Mark Schubert, the head women's coach, said. 'That's important to our success. In the past we seemed to let the East Germans intimidate us but I don't see anyone intimidating this team.'

It will be the American women who will be creating unease, their swimmers topping the 1991 world rankings in nine of the 13 individual events. Names like Jenny Thompson, Anita Nall, and Summer Sanders may not be of the household variety in Britain at the moment but they could be in a week's time.

Biondi, who gained five golds in 1988, will again be the male spearhead, age affecting him only in the number of events he is undertaking. But others, too, are overtly confident. 'I've thought of nothing but winning an Olympic medal since I finished fourth in Seoul,' Melvin Stewart, the 200m butterfly world record holder, said. Mike Barrowman, who holds the 200m breaststroke record, said after being upset by Roque Santos in the US Trials: 'This will burn in me a long time. I'll see this defeat every time I get into the pool to train.'

The smouldering Barrowman is one of the obstacles in the way of Nick Gillingham, who represents Britain's best chance of a gold medal in the pool. The 25-year- old from Walsall set the second fastest time ever in the 200m breaststroke in Sheffield two months ago.

Gillingham, a silver medallist four years ago, also competes in today's 100m breaststroke where he will confront the man who has overshadowed him from the moment he made it to the British team. Adrian Moorhouse won this event in Seoul and Britain would be contemplating the aquatic equivalent of Seb Coe versus Steve Ovett tonight if the two participants were not so anxious to play the comparison down.

'From what little I know about Coe and Ovett,' Moorhouse said, 'there was deemed to be some ill-feeling between them and that's not the case with Nick and I. Sure he wants to beat me as much as I want to beat him, we're both competitors. But you don't dislike someone for that, you respect them.'

Gillingham added: 'When we race together we will be seen as a force. We will be two Britons together. We will gain strength from that. It will take the pressure off each other.'

Elsewhere among the British men, there are grounds for optimism about Ian Wilson's prospects in the 1500m, where he was fourth in the world rankings in 1991, while Mike Fibbens (50m and 100m freestyle) and Mark Foster (50m freestyle) might ruffle Biondi's supremacy.

The women's chances are less rosy despite Sharron Davies's claim that this is the best British team she has ever been in. Davies, a silver medallist in the 400m medley 12 years ago, concedes she will need to swim a lifetime best just to reach the final of the 200m medley.

The woman most likely to succeed - and it's a remote possibility - is Karen Pickering, a rebel to the core. 'I like to be different,' she said. 'If someone says, 'Don't push that button,' I've got to push it.' It will definitely set her apart if she wins one out of the 50m, 100m and 200m finals as she would be the first British female swimming gold medallist since Anita Lonsborough 32 years ago.