Sailing: No plumbing the depths for this British pair: Merricks and Walker set course for Atlanta Olympics gold in the 470 dinghy class. Stuart Alexander reports

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WHILE Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent have been earning public applause from well outside their rowing constituency, another pair of water babies, of the more salty variety, have announced to the world's best that Britain is again producing Olympic gold medal potential.

The sport is sailing and the likely lads are John Merricks, a 23- year-old son of a plumber from Leicester who left school at 16, and Ian Walker, 24-year-old son of a prosperous plumber's merchant in Sevenoaks who is a Cambridge geography graduate.

When pursuing separate Olympic selection campaigns in the 470 dinghy class, they decided to join forces a year ago and since then their results have been impressive.

They immediately won some British events to qualify for Royal Yachting Association grants, went on in January to win the Miami Olympic and US Midwinter regattas, crashed to 22nd in April at Hyeres in France, bounced back in May to win the Spa regatta in the Netherlands, came second in the European Championship in Germany, and went on in July to win at Kiel and the inaugural International Yacht Racing Union World Championship at La Rochelle.

'It's the best year I've ever had,' Merricks said. 'It couldn't have gone any better.' As he added the 420 World Championship in August and Walker won the International 14 worlds at his first attempt in 1993, the talent and versatility is obvious and secure.

The last time Britain won sailing gold at the Olympics was in 1988, 250 miles away from Seoul on the remote waters of Pusan. Mike McIntyre and Bryn Vaile thought they could win, but the rest of the competitors and William Hill did not.

But win they did and McIntyre is now one of three men on the Olympic steering group charged with improving in 1996 the haul of Lawrie Smith's single bronze medal from Barcelona.

In Atlanta, the sailors will again be more than 200 miles away from the Olympic centre, in quaint but sultry Savannah, where the mosquitoes are huge and where the race track will be a frustratingly long trek from the hotel.

But it is in the rather more prosaic venue of Weymouth in Dorset at the end of next August, 10 months ahead of the Games, that Merricks and Walker must win the selection regatta to secure the British slot in the 470. Not that many would bet too much against them at the moment. They are ranked No 1, not just in Britain but in the world, after sailing together for only a year. Previously, both had been helmsmen trying to win Barcelona places which eventually went to Paul Brotherton and Andy Hemmings, who promised much but blew up as the pressure told.

Merricks and Walker seem likely to fare better. They were rivals throughout their youth careers, in which Walker won four successive world mirror dinghy championships. 'All I ever wanted was to beat John,' Walker, a former captain of Cambridge University Sailing Club and the British Universities Sailing Association, said. 'Now all I want is to win with him.'

Even problems have turned into good fortune as Walker, who needed preventative remedial surgery on a suspect left shoulder, was forced to lay off for a few weeks, giving both a much-needed rest.

Merricks has been lucky in other ways: having a very supportive family even when leaving school at 16 with just three O levels; having Rutland Sailing Club nearby; being helped by a member there, Tony Everard of the brewing family, with boats and returning the investment by winning the World Youth Championship two years running in 1988 and '89.

When not furthering his own campaign, Merricks sails for fun, crewing for his girlfriend, sailing the odd evening with a colleague from North Sails, Will Sparshatt- Worley, in his 14. 'When I say we're resting that doesn't mean I'm not sailing. I couldn't do that,' he said.

But he is thinking about the programme for next year, the problem of peaking at the right time, the end of August, and then re-running the programme in the run-up to the Games. As he has to hold down a job at North Sails, he relies on Walker, who took the difficult decision to give up work to concentrate on the campaign and to handle much of the essential clerking.

As to the actual sailing, Walker knows that his taller, heavier frame on the trapeze wire, combined with a helmsman's eyes for upwind tactics, fits perfectly with the smaller Merricks, who he describes as the fastest driver of a 470 that he knows.

So, is this a dream ticket? 'It's too early to say that yet, but they are certainly very good medal prospects,' Rod Carr, the Olympic coach, said. He knows that, while other sports pick their teams from the people in form at the time, the UK Olympic sailing group, along with New Zealand and the US, has decided to pick early. The main argument in favour is that this avoids making the selection trial the peak of an Olympic season rather than the Games themselves.

There are also arguments for late selection, but at least it means that the precious resources of the Olympic coaching group can be spread thickly on a few instead of thinly on many. Even then, much of the responsibility for preparation falls on the competitors themselves.

'We offer a market stall of support options, but they will have to organise their programme. That's the exam that's been set for them. Great athletes have to be able to perform on cue. Linford Christie is a classic example of a man rising to the big occasion,' Carr said.

But then Christie's partnership is with his coach, or his inner-self. Merricks and Walker have to hope that personal chemistry - Walker's intense determination, the total belief of Merricks - combined with an ability to analyse a race in detail and then laugh about it in the pub will continue to frighten the opposition as much as it does now.

(Photograph omitted)