Swimming: Don-Duncan finds harmony afloat

The latest contender for golden girl of swimming (left) has an easy manner that belies steely will to win.
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The Independent Online
AS HELEN Don-Duncan was leaving to take part in a training session, she had one question. "Do you do know how to spell my name properly?" she asked, a victim of misplaced letters in the past. It is not a problem she is likely to suffer much longer.

A female who might win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, that open in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, is unlikely to be mis-spelled for long, but Don-Duncan is also 17, blonde and attractive. The words "golden girl of British swimming" seem to be her destiny, even if they are not in common parlance currently.

Don-Duncan, from Garswood, near St Helens, is ranked joint first in the Commonwealth for the 200m backstroke, with Australia's Meredith Smith, and is rising through the world rankings at a speed akin to her rate through the water. Even if she fails in Malaysia, she ought to be knocking on the door of her prime at Sydney 2000.

"It's her determination that makes her stick out," Ivor Tattum, her coach, said. "She knows what she wants, and it's an Olympic gold medal. I probably shouldn't say this, but I think she'll get it."

Tattum has coached Don-Duncan, an A-level student at Winstanley College, almost from the moment she found she could move quicker through the water than her peers. "It was her attitude even then that made her stand out," he said. "It's the willingness to work that sets youngsters apart.

"She gives 100 per cent every time she gets in the water. That's not easy when it's 5am on a cold winter morning and you're a long way off competition. It's nice for a coach to have a swimmer who motivates herself."

Don-Duncan, who comes across as having a laid-back attitude that makes David Gower look hyper-tense, has taken to renown with aplomb. She says she likes the attention and does not get nervous before big competitions. Only competing in the World Championships in Perth, Western Australia, this January threw her, and then it was not because she was facing the planet's best.

"I was shocked by the size of the crowd more than anything," Don-Duncan said, after finishing well down at 11th. "Swimming is a big sport in Australia and there were thousands there. It made a big change from the few mums and dads who watch us compete normally."

She has been viewed with more than passing interest by the Amateur Swimming Association, which incorporated her into the Swim 2000 squad set up after the last Olympics to school our best youngsters both in and out of the pool. "She is," a spokesman said, "a very talented young girl."

That was apparent almost from the moment she took to the water. "I started at school and enjoyed it almost straight away," she said. "I still do. I train nine times a week but I can't say I find it a chore. Most of my friends are swimmers, including my boyfriend, so it's not a question of missing out on a social life. We fit things in round our training.

"I was always competitive. Even when we used to swim breadths across the local pool. I always wanted to be first across."

Competitive by nature, she became competitive in the pool after winning a gold medal at the Junior European Championships two years ago. Her best time dropped by two seconds during that season and, from a place so deep in the world rankings she did not register 12 months ago, she is in the top 20 and rising now.

Where that upward momentum will take her is anybody's guess, though she has set herself the limited aim of any medal at the Commonwealth Games. "I'd like to swim in three Olympics if I can," she said, "before I start thinking about retirement."

When you meet her that statement is about the only retiring thing about her, although she does have a subject about which she is shy. "I get skitted about," she said. "My dad is a conductor of the Pemberton Youth Band, so I've played since I was seven."

Her instrument, to the dismay of sub-editors who could have had a splendid time with others, is the euphonium. Still, she will not need to blow her own trumpet if she wins in Malaysia. Her name should be spelt right, too.