Swimming: Keen Britons aiming to spoil Australia's party in the pool

Commonwealth Games
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AFTER 10 days on the island paradise of Penang and five days of final preparation here in Kuala Lumpur, England's swimmers are set for their best Games ever. Certainly they will have the best start possible when Mark Foster carries the flag of St George at the opening ceremony tonight.

Competing in his fourth Games, Foster is the defending Commonwealth champion in the 50m freestyle. Moreover, he is now recognised as the consummate professional and role model, a dramatic turnaround from his early years as a swimming rebel.

From the crowd of 100,000 at the opening ceremony tonight, the swimmers will move to the spectacular 4,000-seat arena next door, to start Day One of the swimming events early tomorrow. The goal, according to the chief coach, Ian Turner, is to surpass the six gold medals the team won in Victoria four years ago, and challenge the record seven golds claimed at Brisbane in 1982.

In their way is a powerful Australian team. It is their stated aim to win every gold medal at these Games; a bold statement that, although unlikely, underlines their total dominance in the pool. They won 23 golds at Victoria and will win a similar number here.

Yet, despite the withdrawal last week of the Olympic silver medallist, Paul Palmer, due to chronic muscle fatigue, confidence here is still high. The two swimmers most likely to shine for England are James Hickman and Susan Rolph. Both have a good chance of each winning three gold medals. The last Briton to do so was Anita Lonsbrough, back in 1962.

Rolph is here to create history. Top of the rankings in both the 50m and 100m freestyle, she is second in the 200m medley by just 0.02secs. After setting two British records at the trials in July, she is confident of holding off the Australian challenge. "I'm a fighter up here now," she said tapping the side of her head. Whisper it carefully, but there is a very small chance that Rolph could win an unprecedented four golds, as she will anchor the 4x100m freestyle team who are here as defending champions.

Hickman is the world record holder over 200m butterfly in the short-course (25m) pool. With the absence of the Olympic and world medallists, Matthew Dunn and Curtis Myden, the 200m and 400m individual medley events have left a hole which Hickman is eager to fill.

One reason the Australians are so dominant is that their swimmers have benefited from heavy funding for many years. Their current superstars, Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe and Kieren Perkins, are the latest in a production line of champions. But with National Lottery money now funding a radical lifestyle change in Britain, this team is the first to come through a system where every member is a professional sportsperson.

Joining Hickman, Rolph and Foster will be the defending champions Karen Pickering, Adam Ruckwood and Martin Harris. Each has a chance of winning gold again, before the six days of swimming finish next Thursday. Nick Shackell will once more attempt to become the first Briton to break 50 seconds for the 100m freestyle when he competes on Monday.

Behind the experience comes a wave of youth unburdened by expectation. A quarter of this team has never swum in senior international competition, and any of them could win medals; particularly Darren Mew and Adam Whitehead in the breaststroke, Helen Don-Duncan in the backstroke and Georgina Lee in the butterfly. Most of this team will use the Games to begin their preparation for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Success this week will set a new standard of professionalism, on which the rise of British swimming into the next millennium will be built.