Swimming / European Swimming Championships: Foster putting his troubles behind him: Britain's men find a colourful spearhead - Adrian Holloway on an Essex-born swimmer with a chequered past but a bright future

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LAST year at Barcelona, Britain's swimmers were nicknamed Team Disco after making more of an impression on the Olympic Village dance floor than in the pool. They returned home with morale at a dangerously low ebb. Mark Foster has changed all that. In February he became the fastest man through water when he broke the short- course 50 metres freestyle world record, and this week he is leading the British challenge at the European Championships.

At 6ft 6in and 14st 6lb, beleaguered British spirits need look nowhere else for a figurehead. Foster even has an English rose and Olympic rings tattooed on his chest. It was five months ago that he suddenly struck a rich vein of form in the World Cup series, first breaking the 50m butterfly world record in Germany and then lowering the freestyle record to 21.60sec at Sheffield the following week. He now returns to the same Ponds Forge pool where he must beat the Olympic champion from Russia, Aleksandr Popov, in the 50m freestyle final on Saturday afternoon to confirm his status as the best in the world.

'It might as well be the World Championships because all the best sprinters are European,' Foster said. 'None of the Americans are up there at the moment, so this really is a big one. I'll definitely get a medal, it's just a question of which colour, and that will depend on what kind of start I get.'

When Foster beat Popov in February, it was evident that the 23- year-old Briton had the better dive and the better turn, but on Saturday the pool will be lengthened to 50m, and that could present Foster with problems. 'Most of my sprinting has been in a 25-metre pool,' he says, 'so the long course is something I haven't done for ages.'

In fact, apart from the Barcelona final, in which Foster produced one of the few encouraging moments by finishing sixth, he has scarcely raced in a 50m pool for three years. Moreover, for most of that time he was not swimming at all. This takes some explaining, because Mark Foster is, in one respect, an unlikely world record holder.

His wayward youth provided every indication that he would be too bored by swimming ever to apply his undoubted talent. Essex born, he left home at the age of 13 on a half- scholarship to Millfield School in Somerset where he fell out with the swimming coach before moving on, three years later, to Kelly College, a swimming academy at Tavistock, from which he was expelled.

His misdemeanour, which cost him a pounds 260 court fine, was the forging of a cheque, the proceeds from which were spent on a night out at a Cardiff casino during a weekend meeting. He was then banned for six months after police caught him at a training camp in the United States trying to steal a car number- plate as a memento of the trip.

Coaches despaired of him. He was one of the lads out of the water because he knew he was a natural in it, but at the Seoul Olympics he failed dismally, finishing 23rd in the 50m freestyle, and after the 1990 Commonwealth Games, Foster gave up swimming altogether. 'I wasn't training anyway. I'd be down the pub instead.' The next 18 months were spent working as a window fitter, driver, or on the dole, until he received the phone call which made him snap out of it.

The caller was a former teammate, Mike Fibbens, who had just won a bronze medal at the European Championships. 'I knew I could beat him any day,' Foster said, 'and instantly I realised how close I'd been to cracking it when I quit.'

Sure enough, nine months later, Foster was standing on the starting blocks at the 1992 Olympic final, in which he beat the gold and silver medallists from the European Championships. If Foster becomes the 1993 European champion on Saturday, few will doubt that he now has the determination to turn his talent and power into an Olympic gold medal at Atlanta '96.