Pickering in pursuit of a perfect race

Olympic Games: Guy Hodgson talks to the British swimmer who took over where Sharron Davies left off
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The Independent Online
It appears someone has to have it and the title fits Karen Pickering better than most. When the photographer's lens searches for British swimming's golden girl in succession to Sharron Davies it usually comes to rest on the 24-year-old from Ipswich.

"Golden girl? If only they knew," she replied mysteriously to the proposition while resisting encouragement to amplify. "I don't mind the fashion things and modelling swim suits. I'm not shy of the camera.''

A full page advertisement for Speedo in the official journal of the Amateur Swimming Association testifies to that, although the sport's governing body hardly needs any reminding that Pickering is not shy. Indeed, it has been the target of several of her outspoken criticisms in the past.

In 1992 it was over the refusal to take her coach, Dave Champion, to Barcelona as part of the official party that sparked discontent and four years ago, when it appeared he would not be in Atlanta, she was equally upset. Thankfully, he was later invited to the holding camp in Tallahassee and Pickering will also be able to work with him during the Games.

"Let's put it this way," she said. "I'm happier he's there. I wouldn't say I was rebellious, it's just that I speak my mind. I suppose some people might think I'm difficult but I know if I'm going to get ahead I have to do the best I can. If that means sounding off about something I will.''

Whatever the means, Pickering has been Britain's most successful woman swimmer in the Nineties, winning a gold medal at the World Short Course Championships in 1993, two golds in the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and four European bronzes last year. She will compete in the 100 and 200 metres freestyle here and will be in the first group of swimmers into the pool when the Olympic tournament begins here with this morning's 100m heats. The final takes place later in the evening.

Pickering, who collected an MBE two years ago, has also broken the British 100m long course record four times. She has a chance of a medal, a remote one, but better than her best times in the 100 and 200m - 55.79sec and 2:00.33 - might suggest.

"I think I can get in there and compete with the best in the world," Pickering said. "If I do the swim I know is within me I have a chance. The first thing is getting to the final which is why I was so pleased with my heat time in the Olympic trials in Sheffield. I did my fastest- ever morning swim in the 100.

"I like a challenge. I'm good at major competitions. It's not a case of doing well in the national championships and then flopping at the big ones. I do my best swims at the major events.''

Pickering, the daughter of a Dutch national medallist, took to the sport as naturally as one would expect for someone with swimming in the blood. An asthmatic, doctors advised her parents to put her in the water to improve her lung capacity, and she has barely been out of it since.

In Barcelona she missed out of the final proper but swam a personal best in the B event for the next eight swimmers. "I know I can swim in the environment," she said. "I've won a gold at world level. I'm not fazed by the pressure.

"I don't have nerves. Usually a few weeks before an event my stomach is in knots. But, as I get closer to the competition, if I'm feeling good it's pure anticipation, wondering what I can do. Once I'm on the blocks I've forgotten everything except what I'm going to do in the water. My head is clear.''

She is also spared the additional stress of competing in the 50m, an event she took part in at Barcelona but one she feels will be a race too much this time. As to which distance is her best, she is not sure.

"I always thought on the world stage that I was a better 200 swimmer," she said, "and potentially I still think I am. But I've had a few setbacks over the longer distance in the last few years and my 100 has improved although it's a difficult race because the Americans and Chinese are very good and there's also Franziska van Almsick to contend with.

"Frankly, what I've got to do is simple. I need the perfect race. The bottom line is that I can't control what the others do, I can't grab hold of their feet no matter how much I'd like to. All I can do is swim the best I can and hope it's enough.''

Having an image as a golden girl is no problem. The more tangible prize of an Olympic medal, even a bronze, is the hard part.