Swimming: Hickman harbours high hopes

Guy Hodgson talks to a British swimmer who has put his ambition on record before the World Short Course Championships
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You could imagine the likes of Adrian Moorhouse seeing the small frame of the adolescent James Hickman coming towards them and shuddering. The young swimmer was, in his own words, a pest, always wanting to know more about the Olympics: Seoul music to his ears, a repetitive chore for the gold medallist.

Things have moved on for Hickman. Now 21, it is he who is being bothered by young wannabes and the impositions placed on his memory are unlikely to slacken. Not with the World Short Course Championships (17 to 20 April) looming in Gothenburg where the Stockport Metro swimmer is expected to move into the sport's elite alongside Olympic medallists, Paul Palmer and Graeme Smith.

Expected and expecting. Hickman believes he will win a gold medal in Gothenburg just as he set his sights on an Olympic title in Atlanta last July. "Shoot for the stars and you might get to the moon," he said. "Aim for the moon and you might not get there at all."

Sport is full of over-blown expectation but Hickman's career is already in lunar orbit. In Atlanta, he broke British records in the 100m and 200m butterfly - an exception in a team where personal bests were rare - and next week he could come away with a world record. "We're all so close in the 100m," he said, ''it'll probably need one. If I'm in with a shout at the 75m turn I should be able to clinch the title."

Hickman's confidence stems from a winter in which he improved his short- course world rankings to second in the 100m and fourth in the 200m. In January he took a 30-hour flight from Australia, competed in a World Cup meet in Glasgow the following day and broke the European 100m record with 52.34sec, 0.6 outside the world mark.

"The Russian whose got the world record was rested, shaved, tapered and ready while I'd got off a plane and dived in a pool. Even that swim was not 100 per cent as I missed a couple of turns. I know I can go faster. I would expect to drop 0.5sec just by being rested and shaved," he said.

Hickman was encouraged to take up sport, any sport, because his parents feared what he might get up to on the streets of his less than wholesome neighbourhood. Gymnastics tempted him but swimming won, even though he did not appear gifted. Then a defining moment in his determination to succeed arrived: his mother and father divorced.

"I was 12 or 13, at that age, puberty, where everything is stressful as it is. You can imagine the amount of emotional blackmail that was going around. But it's character building, I'm a lot more confident than a lot people. I'm not worried about situations because I've been through worse already."

Swimming was an escape and at 14 he decided to "do it properly" and despite, not knowing which stroke was his best, he began collecting junior and age-group titles. The butterfly landed when he surprised everyone by winning the 200m at the national championships in 1992. Now he holds British records at 100 and 200m and the 400m medley.

He attributes much to his coach, Dave Calleja, with whom he has a tempestuous relationship. They argue, he says, incessantly - "people must think we can't stand the sight of each other" - but the bust-ups seem to work. Pertinently, another Atlanta success, Graeme Smith, also trains under Calleja at Stockport.

"We've got a great facility at Stockport, a 50-metre pool and the council are very supportive. They really push swimming. We train Olympic length which makes a difference. And Dave is always at the forefront of things in this country. What a lot of people forget is that standards are so high you have to break a British record in the morning to even reach an Olympic final. Then if you break the record again you might, just might, get a medal. I don't think the team did as badly as was made out."

The impression the Games burned on Hickman's mind was one of scale. Even his inner belief was knocked askew briefly when he walked into the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre and saw the banks of people towering over the pool. When he rcovered, he felt inspired.

"At the national championships there's about 500 people and it's about as noisy as a busy restaurant. At the Olympics there were 16,000 people which is whoah. It blew a lot of minds. Plus 40 million on television, it's a bit crazy.

"My attitude was 'right I'm going to show these people how good I can swim'. Others worry that they might perform badly in front of a big audience. I'm 'yeah, come on'. Really up for it. When you get to the Olympics the difference physically between the eight men on the blocks is very small, it's mentally that there's a huge difference."

Just as the difference will be between the ears in Gothenburg next week. "Before Atlanta I was trying to get within range of the world's best," he said, "whereas afterwards I felt I put myself in there. I'm on par with them and I'm knocking them off one by one until I get to the top."