Swimming: Hardcastle faces long haul back: Britain's women will look to an unlikely figure at this week's European swimming championships. Guy Hodgson reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS BRITISH swimming mulled over a disappointing Olympics last year, a statistic was flying around in troubled minds like an irritating insect. The women's 800 metres gold medal in Barcelona had been won in a time that was slower than the national record.

Even more irksome was that the holder of that time was young enough to have been competing. At a Games where no British woman manged to reach a final, never mind get within a mile of a medal, it was a waste.

Sarah Hardcastle, the object of this frustration, was also moved by what she saw in Barcelona, but in a different way. The winner of two Olympic medals in 1984, she holds the British record and when she watched the American Janet Evans being rewarded with a gold for a time that was more than a second slower than her best her reaction was 'I can do that'.

Or at least she used to be able to do that. As she watched last year's Olympics, she was 23 and had been retired for six years. Until that point, she had shown no inclination to re-enter a world of 5am starts and monotonous miles of training. It had been a chore at 17, so much so that she had given up four months after winning two gold medals at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and gone within 0.15 seconds of the 800m world record. What would it be like now?

The girl who had spent her teens being 'Britain's youngest ever' had also been among the youngest to choose a life of normality. To discard that was not easy and also resting none too lightly on her mind was her reaction at the time she retired, when she could not face swimming for two years. Even in the period building up to Barcelona, when her interest ought to have been stirring, she had restricted her dips to no more than one a month. She associated the swimming pool with hard labour; enjoyment was gathered elsewhere.

So it was with the tentative toe- dip of a novice that Hardcastle re- entered the water, swimming a couple of lunch-times a week before discovering she enjoyed it more than she expected and deciding to do the thing properly.

Last September she left her secretarial job and approached the man who had coached her from the age of seven, Mike Higgs. Since then she has lost a stone and a half from her 6ft frame and gained a place in Britain's European Championship team in Sheffield this week. 'I have not cried as often as I expected,' she says of her comeback.

It is 55 years since Britain last held these championships and no one could accuse the country of using the intervening time in a relentless pursuit of swimming excellence. The last British woman to win a European gold was Anita Lonsborough in 1962 and it is something of an indictment that Hardcastle, despite her lay-off, represents as good a prospect as we have of breaking that record of non-achievement.

'I'm hoping to reach a final in Sheffield,' Hardcastle, who competes in the 400m and 800m freestyle, said; but her demeanour suggested she expected more. In the ASA National Championships in June, which acted as a trial, she clocked 4min 16.04 sec in the shorter event which was the fourth fastest time in Europe this year and put her in the world's top 10.

Hardcastle is blessed that her events are not being contested by the two women likely to dominate Sheffield, Krisztina Egerszegi and Franziska van Almsick, who could swim off with eight golds between them. Other British swimmers do carry that misfortune with them into the pool and only Karen Pickering, in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle, would appear to have a realistic hope of a medal.

The men represent a different case. Nick Gillingham has recorded the fastest times of the year for 100m and 200m breaststroke and was within a fraction of the European record in the longer event, which he has won in the last two European Championships. Last year, he was similarly impressive but a mixture of misfortune and injury restricted him to a third and a seventh place in the Olympics.

'Just because I swam well in the trials does not mean I'm guaranteed a medal now,' he says. 'Lady Luck plays a big part on the day.' In his favour, he likes the Ponds Forge pool and he also described his swim in June as 'the easiest big 200' he had ever done.

Elsewhere it is the short events that promise most. The 50m freestyle holds potential for Britain as Mike Fibbens, the bronze medal winner of two years ago, and Mark Foster, the world short-course record holder, both compete. They will need to overcome Alexander Popov, the Olympic champion, if either is to win gold.

FOUR TO FOLLOW AT SHEFFIELD

NICK GILLINGHAM (GB)

Britain's only medallist at last Olympics and most likely home recipient of a gold in Sheffield. Won 200m breaststroke in last two European Championships, and the absence of Hungary's Norbert Rosza, who beat him in Barcelona and who has since applied for Australian citzenship, has made him a favourite to become the first to complete a hat-trick in the event.

TAMAS DARNYI (Hun)

Missed the last European Championships in deference to his Olympic preparations but is seeking a second treble to emulate his wins in the 200m and 400m individual medley and 200m butterfly he gained at the 1989 championships in Bonn. His record also includes four Olympic and two world titles.

KRISZTINA EGERSZEGI (Hun)

Only 18, but Egerszegi has an eye for bullion that would put Midas to shame. Left Barcelona last year weighed down with three golds from the 100m and 200m backstroke and 400m individual medley and is likely to leave Sheffield with more. Has extended her repertoire to the 200m butterfly, an event which was one of only two that had no European medallist at the Olympics.

FRANZISKA VAN ALMSICK (Ger)

Won four Olympic medals at the age of 14 and has since had the keepers of the short-course record books in a near constant state of re-writing. She could conceivably win four titles this week - the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly - while re-establishing her nation at the peak of the sport. There was one German gold in Barcelona compared to nine in Seoul.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments