Swimming pools are never more attractive than during a heatwave but for the British team at the World Aquatic Championships, the water in Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi arena will seem unusually forbidding.
For Britain’s swimmers the long party after the London Olympics was one to avoid or attend with a fixed grin. They have a new national coach, Bill Furniss, the man who steered Rebecca Adlington to two golds in Beijing in 2008, a new performance director in Chris Spice, who has worked in sports ranging from hockey to rugby union, and plenty of old wounds.
Fran Halsall, the bubbly, hugely talented 23-year-old from Southport, had a chance of five Olympic medals in the London Aquatic Centre and dissolved into tears when it sank in she would go home with none. Only two members of the British team left with anything.
Halsall did not attend any of the post-Olympic parties and it was probably just as well that unlike her boyfriend, Alastair Wilson, the Great Britain hockey player, she did not have the Olympic rings tattooed on her body. Barcelona represents a shot at redemption.
That Halsall is now working with a sports psychologist would please Adrian Moorhouse, who, after retiring from swimming, now runs Lane4, a company that uses coaching and motivational techniques from elite sport and applies them to business. Moorhouse was an ambassador for the London Games and will be at the Palau Sant Jordi commentating for the BBC.
“There is still far too little work done on sports psychology in swimming,” he said. “Listen to the interviews the swimmers gave in London. They continually said how glad they were to be there, that they were here to enjoy themselves and what a great event it was.
“They were not at the Olympics to enjoy themselves; they were there to win gold. Yes, it was a great event and, for most, it would have been the greatest event of their lives but it was one they screwed up.”
Moorhouse argues that British Swimming should analyse one of the few stand-out British performances in the pool, Michael Jamieson’s remarkable fightback to take silver in the 200m breaststroke. The world champion, Daniel Gyurta from Hungary, hung on to win the gold medal but he had to break the world record to keep the Glaswegian at bay. What interests Moorhouse is why Jamieson responded to the pressure while it suffocated his team-mates.
And yet, Furniss’s focus is so narrowly on the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro – understandably enough since his job will depend on the results – that he has omitted Liam Tancock from his squad for Barcelona despite the fact that four years ago he became world champion, breaking his own world record, in the 50m backstroke. There will be a 50m backstroke in Barcelona – but not in Rio.
Swimming’s Olympic legacy is represented by a very impressive Aquatic Centre in Stratford but a whole lot less money following funding cuts by UK Sport, which has led to the closure of one of the five Intensive Training Centres.
The facilities at the now defunct ITC in Stockport were described by Olympic medallist Steve Parry as “the best in the world”. However, performance director Spice says, before the closure is condemned, people should ask how many elite swimmers actually used Stockport when £3.7m needed to be saved.
Cutting funding because swimming did not meet its medal targets in London seems an odd way to react to adversity. The sport is unlikely to become more successful with less money. Furniss, however, argues that his model is France, which concentrated resources on a small number of elite performers to finish third in the 2012 swimming medal table with four golds. And yet British Swimming’s funding also depends on more people participating at grass roots. It may be fighting on too many fronts.
“Naturally, it has to look after the grass roots because swimming is the only sport that can save your life,” said Moorhouse. “If my kids fall into a canal, I’d like them to be able to swim.” But do young British swimmers have to be inspired by young British medallists? If you were growing up in Devon, would the sight of the two 15-year-olds, from Washington, D.C and Lithuania, Katie Ledecky and Ruta Meilutyte, winning gold at the London Games not inspire you? Meilutyte trains in Plymouth.
“You can be inspired by Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky,” said Moorhouse. “However, you would see them only every few years at a World Championships or Olympic Games and, in my experience, there is nothing that inspires someone more than meeting an Olympian.
“My hero was David Wilkie and there was nothing like talking to him and seeing the gold medal he won in Montreal. I have talked to two Olympians – and I won’t name them – who have told me they were inspired by what I did in Seoul. Their sports were not swimming. Look at the work Becky Adlington did after she won in Beijing. There is no substitute for an Olympic gold medal.”
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