Swimming: In the fast lane to Olympic gold

Swimming: Now over the troughs of the past, James Hickman strikes out for Sydney via Hong Kong
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST thing you notice about James Hickman is his confidence. Not the sense-cringing bombast of Prince Naseem Hamed, who repels almost as readily as he attracts, but the easy calm of a man who knows.

Self-belief drips from him with the same regularity as the water he has dragged from the pool with his powerful frame. Which, considering we are talking about a British swimmer, a breed not known for travelling to major championships with anything more potent in their luggage than hope, confronts your assumptions. We are good losers handicapped by poor facilities, aren't we? Not Hickman.

"I want to win every 200m butterfly race between now and Sydney," the 23-year-old Mancunian said - an ample wish-list but one he has so far fulfilled. You have to go back to February 1998 since Hickman trailed in the slipstream of anyone, which, when you consider Britain's last swimming Olympic gold was won by Adrian Moorhouse 10 years ago, is an acute departure from recent precedent.

Hickman is good. He also knows it. He is No1 in the world at the 100 metres and 200m butterfly and is in the top 10 in eight other disciplines, and you do not get ranks like that if you are cowed by others. He wants the impression of his winning to be burned in the minds of his rivals so he can arrive at next year's Olympics with his opponents half beaten.

The World Short Course Championships, starting today in Hong Kong, where he defends his 200m title, is part of that image projection.

"I see it as a ladder," he said. "I want people to keep seeing me win. The more I do that the more people will expect me to be there, which will affect my rivals and make it easier for myself. The last time I went to the Olympics I was trying to win; next time I'll be going there to win - which is a totally different thing. I now know I have the ability."

At Atlanta, Hickman was a rare British success, setting national records in the 100m and 200m butterfly, and his curriculum vitae since has world, European and Commonwealth golds highlighted within it. But if that suggests a graph with the line heading resolutely upwards, the impression is wrong. There have been troughs - and few deeper than the European Championships in Seville in 1997.

Hickman had arrived in Spain a strong favourite, but food poisoning debilitated and dehydrated him, so swimming was just about the last thing on his mind, and after withdrawing from the 200m he finished 14th in the shorter event.

"I'd just won the world short course and I think there was a little bit of anxiety," he admitted. "I wanted to stay there, to prove I deserved my gold medal - that it wasn't just a case of winning once and never again - so I trained too hard. I was extremely fit but sometimes athletes can be on the borderline of becoming ill. I picked up a virus that knocked me for six. I lost a stone in weight in four days. It was 46C most days, incredibly hot and humid, and I was in such a state."

That intestinal turmoil was also reflected in Hickman's mind because his relationship with the Stockport Metro coach Dave Calleja, who had guided him since he was a child, was disintegrating. Even at its best they had a tempestuous partnership - "We argued like cats and dogs at times" - and this was a long way downhill from the apex.

"The 1998 World Championships were coming up," he said. "I was trying to concentrate on my swimming but a lot was going on in my head. My times were down, I was rowing with my coach. It was a real low."

In retrospect, his seemingly disappointing fifth place in the 200m at Perth can be seen with a rosier tint, but it did not change his own view that a split was inevitable.

"The work I did at Stockport was fantastic," he said, "and it's paying off now but it got to the point where I had to move on.

"Dave and I had been working together a long time, since I was young, and we grew away from each other completely. I had grown up, it was my career and I wanted to take charge of myself. There were too many conflicts, too often. We didn't sit down and talk about it but we both knew the split was coming."

There were other factors, too. At Stockport the emphasis was on 25m work whereas Hickman wanted to concentrate on long course and, after meeting several potential mentors, he chose Terry Denison at the City of Leeds.

"He's a fantastic coach," Hickman said. "He coached Adrian Moorhouse to the last swimming gold medal we had and he's very well respected. Leeds is pretty close to home and my parents in Manchester, it's a 50m pool, a hard-working programme like I'm used to at Stockport, it seemed ideal."

Hickman has moved to Bramley and it is hard to imagine a richer result because in the past year he has broken two world records, won three European titles and would have added to his Commonwealth Games haul of a gold (200m butterfly) and two silvers (200 and 400 individual medleys) if he had not been disqualified controversially for a false start in the 100m butterfly.

The line on the graph, it can safely be said, is heading in the right direction again.

"It's worked well," he said. "What I have achieved gives me great confidence. To have a world record, to have swum faster than anyone else, proves you have the skill, so let's go and do it now."

Now means Hong Kong, but Sydney is not too far away - and how many other Britons will be going to the Olympics as a strong medal prospect?

Hickman will, and the next four days will help tell him and others whether gold will be the metal. The branding of minds begins.