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Tancock ready to set the early pace

Just because Liam Tancock has swum 50 metres on his back faster than anyone in history does not make the Devonian a favourite to reach the podium here in Beijing. For a start, there is no 50m backstroke on the Olympics schedule. The 23-year-old will compete in the 100m, the heats starting today at 8.08pm (1.08pm in the UK).

With America's Aaron Peirsol involved, the rest of the field are realistically chasing silver. Peirsol won gold in the 100m and 200m in Athens and set world records in both those events last month.

But Tancock, like a growing number of the young British hopefuls who are starting to emerge as contenders at the top level, has an impressive recent CV, and medals to prove he can beat the best.

At last year's World Championships in Melbourne, he took bronze behind Peirsol and another American, Ryan Lochte. At the British Olympic trials in April, he broke the world record in the 50m, clocking 24.47sec. He then went to the Short-Course World Championships in Manchester and came away with four medals – albeit in the 25m pool – including 100m gold and 50m silver on his back.

It is the world record, though, that hints at his prayer for a podium place in the 100m here. Long-course world records are rare enough in British swimming. Before Tancock set his mark, the last Briton to set a world record was Adrian Moorhouse in the 100m breaststroke in 1990.

Tancock's raw pace from the off can hurt opponents. He knows he is capable of being out ahead of everyone – Peirsol included – at the halfway stage, and then it becomes a matter of holding on as long as possible.

America dominates the event but Lochte will not be swimming it, and neither, thank goodness for Tancock, will Michael Phelps, although the Briton will take on the human dolphin in the 200m individual medley later in the week.

"Obviously, breaking the world record in the 50m backstroke shows my speed, but I'm just enjoying what I'm doing," says Tancock. "Holding the 50m world record, I'm going to be out there at the 50 and hopefully pushing the big guys. I'm excited to be here competing against the best in the world, and I'm just going to have to see what happens."

Eight years ago, British swimming had effectively drowned. Infamously, a large squad of almost 60 swimmers went to Sydney and returned with precisely zilch medals between them. Things improved marginally in Athens, with two bronzes, and greater rewards than that are anticipated here.

But golds in the Olympic pool should never be expected. Britain has won only five since the Second World War, through Judy Grinham (1956), Anita Lonsbrough (1960), David Wilkie (1976), Duncan Goodhew (1980) and Moorhouse (1988).

For Tancock to emulate them will require him to have the week of his sporting life, and for Peirsol to falter as well. But GB swimming whispers do not rule out gold elsewhere. If you use the world rankings as the sole guide then that reward is due at these Games to a teenager from Mansfield, Rebecca Adlington, in the 800m freestyle.

The 19-year-old has swum the fastest time over that distance this year, and she is also the world No 3 over 400m. She swims in a third solo event, the 200m free, which begins with heats at 8.40pm this evening local time,and in the women's 4 x 200m freestyle relay, where a strong British squad have a shot at a podium finish later this week.