It is a dozen years since Britain's swimmers returned from the Sydney Olympics without a single medal. Four years ago they came home with half a dozen – only the US and Australia won more – and there is a quiet confidence as they complete their final training camp in Edinburgh that London 2012 could prove even more productive in the pool.
Three of the medals in Beijing came in open-water events and that will not be repeated in London, meaning there has to be greater success indoors. Britain has not won six medals in the pool since 1912.
The team that will return to London tomorrow to take up residence in the Olympic village is one that has grown out of the rethink at the heart of British swimming in the wake of Sydney. The first, and arguably most important, step was the appointment of Bill Sweetenham to take charge of the sport.
A former head coach of Australia, Sweetenham divided opinion during his six years in charge. He left in 2007, not long after being cleared of bullying allegations, but the changes he made and the swimmers he helped introduce into the national team will have an impact in the London Aquatics Centre.
"I don't think the team would be where it is today if it had not been for Bill Sweetenham," said Dennis Pursley, Britain's American head coach. "He did the hard work, he turned the ship around and had a lot of resistance to deal with."
Sweetenham's methods, including 6am starts, rigorous training regimes and a reorganisation of the coaching set-up, alienated many of the more experienced swimmers, but the generation who succeeded them are quick to praise the Australian's influence. "He's one of my favourites," said Fran Halsall, one of the Smart Track group of young swimmers identified by Sweetenham. "He did so much for me – I'm not sure if I would still be swimming now if Bill hadn't taken us away and integrated us into the senior team at such a young age. He had belief in me."
Halsall is among a potentially outstanding group of British women in contention for medals. Another, Ellen Gandy, believes Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson making the podium in Beijing was the final push required after an initial, at times brutal, shove from Sweetenham.
"Becky and Jo's performances in Beijing sparked something in the group," said Gandy. "Maybe it was belief and it just snowballed from there. Every year we've got better and better. It's all been building for this Olympics. It all started off with Bill Sweetenham. He sent us all over the world and it made us professional at a young age. The whole team since Beijing has been stronger and stronger and everyone is going to be looking out for us in London – and they should be. It's our year to shine."
David Davies will be competing in his third Olympics. He was part of the team under Sweetenham's charge for the Athens Games where Britain improved on Sydney but still only won two bronzes – one of them by Davies in the 1500m freestyle. The 27-year-old Welshman is in no doubt as to why British swimming is heading into London on a relative high.
"The biggest turning point was when we got Bill Sweetenham," said Davies. "He changed the attitude, the professionalism, the way people trained, the way the coaches worked. It took a good couple of years to have an effect. The mindset is much more professional – it's now built in and everyone buys into it. He was tough and he was eccentric but sport is tough. He was a great leader. We are still benefiting from his work now."Reuse content