Swimming: Growing pains and gains

James Parrack says Paul Palmer is well equipped to prove his world worth in Perth
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Paul Palmer vowed he would grow up, and he has. At this week's world swimming championships in Perth he is hoping to consolidate his stature by singlehandedly improving on the silver and bronze the British team won the last time they were held there, in 1991.

Palmer, an Olympic silver medallist, was the hero of last summer's European Championships in Seville, where he brought home two golds and a bronze. But it was at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 that Palmer witnessed a bizarre event which influenced his future.

On the first day of competition he watched Adrian Moorhouse, the defending champion, and Nick Gillingham, the world number one, finish seventh and eighth in the final of the 100m breaststroke. "Everyone expected Adrian and Nick to get one and two and when they didn't I could see it affected the whole mental attitude of the team."

Now Palmer wants to be the one the others look to for inspiration. "I hope to be up there getting medals. The youngsters will see that winning can be done by the Brits and it can't help but rub off on them."

Success has not always come easily for Palmer. He was at neither the last world championships nor the Commonwealth Games in 1994 when he was training at the school of experience we call life. Away from the pool, Palmer has never looked or acted much like a typical swimmer. He had a close group of friends at home in Lincoln, and a healthy social life, a luxury normally eschewed by elite swimmers. He made his own decisions and rejected others telling him what he should or shouldn't do.

It was this attitude which led to the problems and he missed most of the year through injury and illness. "I fell through a garage roof and was out from May to August. I realised then that I had to grow up. The larking around you do at that age had to stop and I had to look after myself. I spent the next two years learning how to race again."

With a new focus, Palmer won silver medals at the Europeans in 1995 and at the Olympics in '96. But his Olympic success provided a turning point in a direction he did not expect, the euphoria of Atlanta quickly turning to disillusionment. Despite winning Britain's first medal of the Games and explaining to Des Lynam and the nation about the severe lack of funding in British sport, nothing happened. Sponsorship money did not materialise and lottery cash only kicked in as recently as last October, more than a year after it was first promised.

Palmer had no money and no motivation and it bothered him. The price was too high. Four years for one race and one brief chance for the gold. The silver had brought no recognition and less money and there was no reason to think it would be so different with gold. Steve Redgrave had won four of them and was still broke. After a skiing holiday he had promised himself that Christmas, Palmer arrived at the airport to fly to a training camp. But he was so depressed at the thought of another four years that when the plane was delayed, he walked out of the departure lounge and headed home.

It was the training village at Bath University which saved him. With first-class facilities and pool time whenever he wants it, training now takes place at the civilised hour of 8am. He trains with the best swimmers in the country, is sponsored by Colonial and Adidas and is a changed man. "The biggest difference is working with other swimmers. In Lincoln I trained on my own. You need people to race and when you see they're in pain, you don't object so much to your own. This helped me in Seville, which was the first time since the problems of 1994 that I got everything right."

Palmer is now the consummate professional. He was grateful for an early flight to Perth on Boxing Day and an early night for the new year. He wants people to trust him to make the right decisions about his life away from the pool. In a sport traditionally populated by youngsters, some coaches and administrators are too quick to take the role of childminders. Palmer is proof that leading swimmers in their mid and late twenties can and should be given a looser rein.

Financially secure for the Sydney Olympics and benefiting from a nigh- on perfect training environment, Palmer is at last on a level footing with his rivals in Perth. Bath should not be seen as Utopia, but as the norm. It is not the place to make champions. It is the place to make champions inevitable.