A dozen years ago, Britain's swimmers returned from the Sydney Olympics without a single medal between them. Today if any sport typifies the dramatic revival of Britain into an Olympic power – for that is what they now are – it is the men and, in particular, women who will compete beneath the breath-taking wave-shaped roof of the Aquatics Centre over the course of the next week.
British swimming is back, even if it is thanks to an initial hefty kick from behind by a gnarled Australian. What Bill Sweetenham began in forthright, and often deeply unpopular, fashion in the wake of the Sydney debacle has been carried on by his compatriot Michael Scott, who has loosened the shackles somewhat and watched the medals come if not flooding in then at least arriving in quantities that could not have been imagined a decade ago.
Britain finished third in the swimming medal table in Beijing, thanks largely to Rebecca Adlington's brilliant double gold – a feat that ranks with any in British Olympic history. In all, the swimmers gathered six medals. For London Scott's squad has been given a target of between five and seven. Britain has not won seven medals at a Games since 1908; apart from Beijing, only twice since 1912 has Britain won five and both those came at Games boycotted by leading nations.
It is a significant improvement and one that is founded on the emergence of a group of female swimmers that is the best this country has seen – this really is a generation that could strike gold.
At the world championships in Shanghai last year Britain won five medals and missed out on a further three by 0.2 seconds. Ellen Gandy, winner of silver in the 200m butterfly, missed gold by four hundredths of a second. Scott, a former director of the Australian Institute of Sport who took over British swimming from Sweetenham five years ago, has focused on cutting what he labels those "marginal differences".
Training has been focused on five specialist centres around the UK, including Glasgow, Loughborough and Bath, which has allowed a concentration of coaching and other resources funded by £25.1m from UK Sport – only athletics, by some £4,000, cycling and rowing receive more central funding. Like most of Britain's key Olympics sports, the attention to detail is meticulous. From nutritionists drawing up menu cards for team members to scientists exploring how to reduce a swimmer's drag through the water, anything that could provide an extra edge – close up those "marginal differences" – is explored. Ben Titley, the coach of the Loughborough based swimmers, takes his charges cross training – they have done ballet and rock climbing among other activities. Fran Halsall, who has multi-medal ambitions, and Liam Tancock, the best hope of a men's medal, both believe the diversity has been a key part in their progress.
Tancock is the world champion at 50m backstroke but unfortunately for the Briton that is not Olympic event. He will compete in the 100m and will believe he is capable of a medal even though he is not among the favourites.
But it is not force feeding – the rigidity of Sweetenham's regime, the initial short, sharp, shock, as it were, has been relaxed. "It's not too strict," explained Hannah Miley, a medal hope in the individual medley.
Miley is a case in point. She chose not to be part of the Intensive Training Centre set-up, remaining instead in her home pool, a modest 25 metre public baths in Inverurie in the north-east of Scotland. She has done so with the full support of Scott and his coaching staff. Some of the younger swimmers in the British team have even been dispatched from their Sheffield base to spend time training alongside Miley, a silver medallist at last year's world championships.
One part of the support network that Miley has used is the psychologist; she has made regular visits to Simon Middlemas over the last two years. "I never thought I'd need a psychologist," said Miley. "How wrong I was. I'm an athlete that trains 36 hours a week, spends 28 of them in the pool. I'm on my own most of the time – it would be pretty difficult to say I'm normal! [It's important] to be able to have someone you know to talk to, instead of keeping things bottled up. I've gained a lot more experience through the help of a psychologist. I feel a lot more in control of what I'm doing."
Adlington has also used Middlemas regularly and credits him with a key role in shrugging off her post-Beijing slump. The years in the middle of the Olympic cycle, 2009 and 2010, were difficult for Adlington, but she is now back to her best – she has never swum faster in the early part of the year as she has in 2012.
Adlington's performance will again be pivotal if Britain are to match burgeoning expectations. Anything other than gold in the 800m would be a huge surprise. The 400m will be more difficult to defend against the Italian Federica Pellegrini and Camille Muffat, the in-form French freestyler.
After Adlington the best gold medal hope actually comes from outside the pool. Keri-Anne Payne is the defending world champion in the open-water swim. She was the first name of the 542 written on to Britain's team-sheet when she won in Shanghai last year and an improvement on a silver earned in Beijing is likely.
There are then a trio of women, Miley, Halsall and Gandy, who are, given a good run, capable of winning gold. The known unknown of home advantage may have an impact. Miley was among a number of the British swimmers claiming to have felt inspired during the trials in front of a reduced audience in the Aquatics Centre earlier this year. They are eager to experience what the support of a 17,500-strong full house will sound like.
The 22-year-old Miley bears the imposed responsibility of being the first of the British medal hopes to swim; the 400m IM final is on finals night one in the pool, the day after the opening ceremony. It is another curiosity of the Olympics that an early medal can often act as an inspiration to the rest of the team – equally the longer it goes without any British feet clambering on to the Aquatics Centre podium, the more the tension within the squad grows.
Halsall can match Adlington in earning medals in more than one event. Including the relays, she will swim in five and has a world ranking in all three of her individual categories, 50 and 100m freestyle and 100m fly, that indicates potential for a podium finish. The 20-year-old Gandy, who lives in Australia, would be disappointed to fail to match her world silver in the 200m fly and could also snatch a bronze in the 100m.
Jemma Lowe, another fly swimmer, Gemma Spofforth (100m backstroke) and Elizabeth Simmonds (200m backstroke) all occupy places at the upper end of the world rankings or have won medals at major championships so can contend the lesser medals.
There is considerably less optimism around a young men's team. Tancock is a world champion at the 50m backstroke, but it is a non-Olympic event and he will need to produce his best-ever swim to earn bronze in the 100m. In another era James Goddard would have harboured decent hopes of an individual medley medal, but with Micheal Phelps and Ryan Lochte about, bronze is the absolute best he can achieve. There are younger swimmers, like 17-year-old Craig Benson, who have potential for Rio 2016 and beyond but for the here and now British swimming is a women's world.
Three rivals to trouble Team GB
She is the youngest member of the US team, but the 15-year-old from Bethesda in Maryland might – just might – pull off the biggest shock of the Games and deny Rebecca Adlington gold in the 800m freestyle. Ledecky even being in London is a shock to her let alone anyone else, but only Adlington has swum quicker this year. Earlier this month Ledecky won the uber-tough US trials in 8min 19.78sec, little more than a second outside the time Adlington recorded in the British trials. Adlington is favourite, but will keep a wary eye on Ledecky over the 16 lengths.
Beisel was the youngest American in Beijing and now at the ripe old age of 19 is favourite to win the 400m individual medley on the opening night in the pool and so rain on the home parade. Hannah Miley has eyes on that first British gold. It will be close because Miely's time in winning the British trials earlier this year is less than a second slower than Beisel's benchmark for the season, swum at the US trials. Beisel is the reigning world champion.
The delightfully named 21-year-old Dutchwoman picked up a relay gold medal as a teenager in Beijing but is now more than ready to go solo. She tops the world rankings in both the 50 and 100m freestyle and while Fran Halsall harbours hopes of a medal in both, Kromowidjojo will fancy gold in both. Has made a remarkable return to form this year after missing most of 2011 with meningitis.Reuse content