Snelling sees gold in the Lottery pool

Guy Hodgson meets a dreamer who believes in British swimming
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The Independent Online
How about this for a pronouncement. "I see no reason why we shouldn't be the No 1 nation at the Olympic Games in four years." Who said it? Someone one length short of a race distance or a wild optimist with little grip on reality? We are talking swimming, after all, a sport in which Britain won just one medal at the Barcelona Games and two in Atlanta. That was the men: the women do cartwheels if they get anyone through to a final.

The author of what appears to be an absurd statement is Deryk Snelling, British swimming's newly-appointed National Performance Director. He says it because he believes it, even if the positive comes with a litany of provisos.

"If we can get the resources that will be available from the Lottery," Snelling said, beginning his list. "If it's done correctly, if it's focused where it needs to be and if we, the coaches, do our jobs to the best of our ability, there is no reason why British swimmers should not be going to the podium time after time.

"Certainly, we could give America a hard time as the Australians have in the past. The US are not unbeatable in this game but we are up against a 1,000-fold difference in terms of support. Not 10 per cent but one-thousand times. There's not a university in the US that isn't better funded in terms of swimming than our entire nation."

Pipe dreams, then. We could get there if we spend the money. But Britain is a nation where Paul Palmer's coach, Ian Turner, had to take unpaid leave from his teaching job for eight months to prepare for his silver swim in Atlanta. It is the country where our top athletes have to train at 5am. It is also the place which has fewer indoor 50m pools than the Canadian city of Winnipeg.

Yet the grounds for Snelling's optimism are embodied in himself. Twenty nine years ago, the 63-year-old from Darwen, Lancashire, left Britain because he felt swimming in this country was going nowhere. Canada was a land of opportunity and he grabbed it, helping his adopted home achieve 19 Olympic medals, six world records and 23 short course best times. The fact he has returned is a happy omen in itself.

"I went to achieve a dream," he said, "and Canada which was investing across the board in sport provided it. I can see the same thing over here now. GB has a tremendous future because it has so far to go to catch up but most of the things we need to do will be available to us thanks to money from the National Lottery. It's the right time."

Snelling was talking in Leeds, which he was visiting as part of a programme of meetings with the country's leading coaches. He was due to see Terry Denison, Adrian Moorhouse's former mentor, that day; the night before he had visited Dave Calleja, who guided Graham Smith to bronze in Atlanta, in Stockport. It is part of the learning process, swapping ideas.

"Even at European junior level we are really strong," Snelling said. "We've just been missing the mark a little bit at the last few Olympics. We've consistently won medals but a nation of this many talented swimmers and coaches ought to have performed better. My role is to fill those gaps. Someone thinking at a world level who is not distracted with other responsibilities."

Snelling's ambition is an academy where the top swimmers train with the best at the peak of the pyramid. That will be supported by five regional centres and under that 30 leading clubs. That is the infrastructure - for the elite swimmers he wants money, lots of it, to give Britain an equal chance. He does not want our medal hopes reaching Olympic Games handicapped by lack of finance and with only scant experience of battling against the best.

"If we took 10 swimmers altitude training once, not three times a year like the Australians do with squads of 40, it would probably break our association. Which is absolutely ludicrous. We don't have the resources and Britain have been handicapped. They've won despite the system. There isn't a swimming club in this country that doesn't have a world-class athlete but the problem is there isn't the mechanism to let these people mature and progress through the system.

"It's all so hit-and-miss. If an athlete isn't born in the right part of the country or a coach doesn't happen to be in the pool at the right time, it never happens. We have to solve these problems."

The countdown to Sydney 2000 begins next month with the European Short Course Championships in Rostock, Germany. After that, there are the European Championships in Seville next August and in 14 months time a milestone which should give Snelling an idea whether his work is bearing fruit, the World Championships in Perth, Australia.

"We have a great nucleus now. Our two medallists in Atlanta are young but even the people who didn't show at those Olympics are incredible. Given the right preparation and the right support, they'll make it to the podium. These are great athletes, they make you feel excited. I feel prickly all over just thinking about what they could achieve."

Let us hope Snelling is right: that the financial support is coming and the Lottery will provide a panacea to chronic under-funding. Then we might all get prickly all over come the next Olympics.