Swimming: Ali's gold caps British rise

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a carnival atmosphere on the final night of the European Championships here.

The capacity 7,500 crowd was treated to a world record by Sandra Volker in the 50 metres backstroke, while two more golds went to the star of the meet, Pieter Van den Hoogenband, taking his personal tally to a record- equalling six.

Britain captured two bronze medals for a total of two gold, four silver and four bronze, by far the best achievement of the decade. But the British performance of the day came from Toni Ali, who won gold in the three- metre springboard diving.

On an afternoon of thunderstorms and a torrential downpour, Ali was at his best throughout the six dives. With the pre-event favourites all dropping dives in the third round, Ali held his form for a convincing victory.

"My consistency today was unbelievable. The others dropped a dive and I came up trumps. I've proved now that I can compete with the best in the world. My mental preparation has been excellent and I didn't make a mistake all day. The British team has all performed superbly and together we've taken a big step forward here."

Lesley Ward and Amanda Page finished fourth in the 10-metre synchronised event, the divers ending the week on a high with a gold and two bronze.

Scotland's Alison Sheppard set a British record of 25.33sec in taking third place in the women's 50m freestyle. Sheppard, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist, lives and trains in Victoria Island, Canada, and a year of intense work is finally paying off.

"I am very happy indeed. It has been a good year for me and I felt like I had nothing to lose in the race. From the corner of my eye I could see I was up with the leader, Inge De Bruijn, and I didn't panic. I looked at the wall, put my head down and focused on the finish. Now, finally, after 11 years of internationals to win a medal here just feels great."

Sheppard will return to Canada to marry her coach, Gary Van der Muellen. She joins Palmer as the only swimmers to pre-qualify for next year's Sydney Olympics.

Sue Rolph finished fourth in the race, and at the end of a successful week that saw her become Britain's first European champion in the 100m freestyle, she won bronze in a 4x100m medley team that set a British record of 4:09.18.

Anchoring the team, Karen Pickering picked up her 10th European bronze. She also has 10 Commonwealth medals.

"Sue did a fantastic job on the butterfly leg and I just had to hold on to the medal place. This is a really good medley team and getting on to the rostrum always helps keep me motivated," she said.

The men's medley team finished a terrific week at these championships in sixth place.

The centre of attention, naturally, was the golden boy of the championships, the 21-year-old Dutchman Pieter Van den Hoogenband, who won his sixth gold medal to equal the record haul by Franziska van Almsick in 1993. It was fitting that in the final two lengths of the week, he swam the fastest freestyle relay split of all time, a stunning 47.20.

He was only denied a record-breaking seventh gold by disqualification of the 4x200m freestyle team on Saturday for a false start. In the same race, the Italian team was also thrown out, which promoted the British quartet to a silver medal.

It has been a lucky week for Paul Palmer, who ended the championships as Britain's most successful swimmer, with a gold and two silvers. After his triumph in the 400m freestyle on day one, Palmer admitted to "plodding" the heats of the 200m on Thursday, and it was only a withdrawal from another swimmer that let him into the semi-finals. Capitalising on his good fortune, he proceeded to set a British record in the final to take silver.

The final count of one European record, from Zoe Baker in the 50m breaststroke, eight British records, two Scottish records and one British junior record, from Nicola Jackson, gives credibility to a team that is on the rise.

The performance at least puts Britain on an equal footing with Sweden (population nine million), and a long way behind Germany, with 22 medals and 10 golds, and the Netherlands, with nine golds from 13 medals, and a population one quarter that of Great Britain.

Realistically, Britain has only four or five swimmers with a medal chance in Sydney. The truth of the success or otherwise of the introduction of Lottery funding will only become apparent at the Athens Games of 2004. And from the evidence of this week, we may just about be on competitive terms again by then.