'Poppet' backs himself for a stroke of fortune
Phelps may be focusing on Walker-Hebborn's chosen discipline but the teenager relishes the prospect of leaving a legend in his wake
The good news for London 2012 is that Michael Phelps's prospects of being there haven't gone up in smoke, though that could be bad news for all those whose aspirations of beating him are little more than a pipe dream. But there are rising hopes that he could be looking anxiously over his shoulder at one British youngster moving up quickly behind him.
At 18, Chris Walker-Hebborn is one of the emerging talents tipped to keep Britain riding the wave that swept the sport to historic success in Beijing. David Sparkes, the chief executive of British Swimming, says the backstroke specialist from Bury St Edmunds is "a terrific prospect", a view endorsed by coaches here and in Australia, where he has spent a couple of years.
Last week the prolific junior champion underscored his potential by winning the 200m backstroke in the British senior championships in Sheffield, beating the favourite, James Goddard, with the best swim of his career to secure his place in the World Championships in Rome in August.
Thanks to Rebecca Adlington OBE and Co, swimming, never the most fashionable of Olympic sports here, is undergoing a dramatic makeover, boosted by £15 million from British Gas. Even Phelps says: "The British are one of the teams we're going to be watching these next few years. They're getting faster and faster." With the women on the ascendancy, what Britain could do with, of course, is a male Adlington. Could that be Walker-Hebborn? Beating Phelps might even put Becky in the shade.
So, is the prospect of racing the aquatic Ali intimidating? Just a little, he admits. "I haven't had the chance to swim against him, but on the form he showed in Beijing, he'd put me to shame. He looked pretty awesome. God in the water.
"He's fantastic at everything he does, and although the backstroke isn't his main event, he's still pretty good at it. He didn't do it in Beijing but the word is he's training hard for it in London, which is a bit ominous. But if I make it, hopefully I will have improved a lot by then and won't be disgraced. I'd look forward to racing him."
Walker-Hebborn might have had the chance to do so in the United States once Phelps had completed his suspension following his pot of trouble, so to speak. The teenager took up a place at a university in Tallahassee, Florida, in January but returned home after a few weeks. "There were some problems with an apparent disparity in the training sessions he had expected," explains his father, Andy. "It was clear that he was unlikely to develop there at the pace he needs to compete at international level."
Now he is being coached at one of British Swimming's Intensive Training Centres in Bath. His father, a manager with BP, adds: "We knew Chris was going to be a swimmer from a very early age. As a toddler he went into the pool for the first time when we were on holiday in Florida, and wanted to take the armbands off right away. He wouldn't put them back on and he was determined that that was how it was going to be from then on."
Says the 6ft 1in Walker-Hebborn: "I played football for a bit as a kid but once I really got into swimming I didn't have time for football training." His day started at 5am in the pool for two-and-a-half hours, followed by a session after school and at weekends, seven days a week. "By the time I was about 13, I decided I didn't want to swim any more, I'd had enough of that routine, I wasn't having any social life. But it only lasted three or four months. I told my dad, 'I have to swim again'."
Three years ago he won two silver medals in the national youth champion- ships, and in 2007 three golds, in the 100m and 200m backstroke and 200m freestyle. In his first European junior championships, in Antwerp, he won relay silver and last year, in Belgrade, four golds, plus two golds and a bronze in the world juniors in Monterrey.
If his name seems a bit of a mouthful he will happily answer to "Poppet", which adorns the back of his jersey. It dates back to Australia, where he spent two years at the Southport Swimming School near Brisbane. "When I went to a business studies lesson after a training session one of my Aussie class-mates said 'Hello poppet!' in a mock British accent. It was typically Aussie humour I suppose, but it seems to have stuck. Now I think it's quite cool."
It was in Australia that his career really took off. "The coaching, the facilities and being outdoors, it was wonderful. The difference was that I'd wake up in the morning and it was a 30-second walk to the pool, whereas here it was half an hour's drive."
For 2012 his hope is to compete in the 100m and 200m backstroke, 200m freestyle and the relays. He admits: "I missed out on Beijing by 0.6 seconds in the 100 metres back, but I wasn't expecting to get there and I was surprised I got that close.
"The sport in this country was in the doldrums a bit before Beijing, but the results there have changed all that. Becky was brilliant. She's given great incentive to us young swimmers. I've also admired Steve Parry, who's given me some useful tips about the future.
"The real buzz for me is getting in the water and racing with winning in mind, touching at the end and looking up and seeing your name first on the board. It's the greatest feeling."
It certainly will be if in 2012 the name C Walker-Hebborn pops up before that of one M Phelps.
Message from an icon: Steve Parry
Chris is a prodigious talent. He won four gold medals in junior championships last year. I only won one. He's given some really strong performances for a relatively young guy.
At 18 he's got lots of opportunities ahead of him. The most important thing about getting to the Olympics is to always keep your mind on what you want to achieve. The secret is to enjoy what you do every day and be a positive influence on yourself and those around you.
It's not rocket science. The people who get the medals are those who are the hungriest for it and work the hardest to go that extra mile. Chris has certainly trained with the right people and is extremely focused. He is an outgoing and fun-loving guy, which is important. He now has to step up and make the transition from junior to senior.
He's predominantly a backstroker but also very talented in other events. He's got to continue to train hard and not be afraid to get up there and race with the big boys.
I don't think that he will find the presence of Michael Phelps at all intimidating. In fact it should be inspirational. Having competed against Michael myself for many years – and been mistaken for him – I can appreciate that he really is such a long way ahead of the rest of the field.
He won a lot of the events in Beijing by large margins, and what you have to take into account is that everyone else is purely focusing on one, two or three events whereas it's a tired Michael Phelps that's racing those guys. In Beijing he did 24 races.
Now he is turning his attention to middle-distance freestyle events and the backstroke. First Chris has to prove he has the talent and the physical and mental attitude for multi-events.
Can he get an Olympic medal? Yes, he probably can, but remember, about 100 world records were broken last year and he's got to knock about four or five seconds off his 200 backstroke.
Steve Parry, who in Athens won Britain's first Olympic swimming medal for eight years, runs Total Swimming, which builds temporary pools in schools to help teach children to swim. He is also a broadcaster
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