Swimming: Made in Britain, paid in France

Simon Turnbull talks to Susan Rolph about her decision to be a mercenary
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Susan Rolph will have a Union Jack on her cap when she swims in the Speedo grand prix meeting in Leicester today. She is, after all, one of the Olympian have-nots, awaiting the trickle-down effect from the pounds 40m splash of National Lottery cash. It's a measure of the depths to which British sport has sunk, however, that such a promising young talent happens to be funded not by the pound, but by the franc.

While the Government and the Sports Council were formulating their World Class Performance Programme last weekend, Rolph was already engaged in a search of reward for her sporting efforts. She found it in the outskirts of Paris as a paid member of a French club. Not only that, she earned bonus money for breaking meet records in each of her five races.

"That's it, basically," was Rolph's candid admission when asked whether her motives were purely mercenary. "They've got very good money over there. With me being a student, I don't get much in the way of finance. Sometimes I do still need help from my parents.

"I can make more money with my club, Clichy, than I can here. Sometimes in England all I get is a little medal. The competition I swam in last weekend was the equivalent of our county championships and, to be honest, the standard wasn't very high. I've signed a contract to swim in three competitions. I've got to go back in December and February. If I want to swim any more I just have to get in touch."

It could hardly be more ironic that a member of the British team the former Olympic gold medal winner David Wilkie branded "a disgrace" in Atlanta should be prospering from the infinitely richer system in place in a nation of even lesser swimming stock. Rolph may have failed to reach an Olympic final but at 18 she has a Commonwealth gold medal and this year eclipsed the long-standing British 200m individual medley record held by Sharron Davies, the former child prodigy whose record collection of national age-group titles she eclipsed in her youth.

A former pupil of Walbottle High School, from whose first XV Mick Skinner graduated to England rugby honours, Rolph's French connection does not preclude her local club from having first claim on her international talent. The City of Newcastle club may be unable to pay for her services, but the thriving development programme administered by coach Ian Oliver has been responsible for nurturing her to world-class level.

"I can't ever see a club in England offering money for swimmers to compete for them," Rolph, a sports studies student at Newcastle College, said. "That will never happen. Yet Clichy are only a small club in the outskirts of Paris. They're not a centre of excellence or anything. They've got one girl who went to the European junior championships. Apart from her, they're just club-standard swimmers.

"In France I've been told there's a 50-metre pool in every area. There isn't one in Newcastle. The nearest is Edinburgh or Leeds, which is a shame. We just don't get the interest in swimming here. Joe Public out there doesn't know anything about swimming. I never get recognised around here.

"I know at home the Olympics didn't come across as very good for British swimming. David Wilkie said we were all a disgrace. But, when you look at it, who were winning the most medals apart from Ireland's Michelle Smith? The Australians, the Americans and the other odd countries which have institutes of sport. They've all got proper training facilities in every aspect."

The tide may well turn in this country when the first wave of lottery cash is released in March. Indeed, Deryk Snelling, the newly-appointed national performance director, spoke optimistically last week about British swimming, given suitable resources, re-emerging as a major force.

The major problem, one suspects, will be making up the lost ground. Susan Rolph, for one thing, may be made in Britain. But, for the time being at least, she is paid in France.