Swimming: Other Smith ready to go the distance

OLYMPIC GAMES; There is no better chance for a British gold in the pool than the Scotsman with a prodigious appetite for hard work.
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As if Olympic swimming had not heard the name "Smith" enough this week. Michelle Smith, who has drawn controversy and gold like a magnet, will continue to command attention; tomorrow night a namesake may deflect some of it his way.

Graeme Smith (no relation) today begins his assault on the toughest race of them all, the 1500 metres, with a better than average chance of a medal in tomorrow night's final. He is the fastest in the world this year and, with Nick Gillingham, arrived in Atlanta as one of the two British swimmers with genuine hopes of taking gold.

It is a burden of anticipation for the quietly spoken Scot who now lives in Stockport. His event does not have the glamour of the shorter, faster distances, and he does not carry the natural, confidence-oozing demeanour of a champion. Not at the moment, anyway.

When Smith talks about his biggest rival, Australia's Kieren Perkins, he is almost in awe. "He's a different class," he said. "Even the time I did in the trial, 15min 03.43sec, was 20sec slower than his best. Anyone can have an off-day, but you'd expect him to get a gold medal."

Off-days have been coming too often recently for Perkins - Barcelona gold medallist in the 1500m and silver in the 400m - who failed to make it through the Australian trials in the 400m. It is this apparent weakness in the world record holder that reinforces Smith's hopes. A medal is dangling in front of him as a reward for 12 months of concentrated training that has included missing out a year of study at Manchester University.

Smith, 20, gets up at 5.30am to slog through a daily regime that would make a marine blanch. Weight training is the easy bit because he also pounds up and down the pool to the tune of 80,000 metres a week. A massive food intake is required to fuel the effort, and he eats around three times what the normal person tucks away. As a consequence, his lean frame has put on a stone in muscle over the last year.

"Sure, it's a chore sometimes," he said, "but the Olympics only come round every four years and you get one or two chances at them in a lifetime. You have to give it your best shot.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to do the 50m; certainly the workload is lighter. But it wouldn't appeal to me knowing one mistake and that's it - you are talking about hundredths of a second making all the difference. In the 1500m, something can go wrong and you can do something about it."

Smith was born in Falkirk but moved to the Manchester area as a two-year- old. He is feted in the land of his birth, but his accent is more Coronation Street than Take The High Road, and the only sign of his roots are his football allegiance. He supports Liverpool simply because Scotland's Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish were at Anfield in his formative years. "It seemed the natural thing to do."

Swimming did not come naturally to him, however. At first he took to water like a duck to ice but once he overcame his initial, clumsy reluctance, it was obvious he had talent. Initially he inclined, like all kids, towards the flashier events. He was quick and wanted to be a sprinter, but he was not jet-propelled enough. The move to swimming's equivalent of the marathon came as the realisation dawned.

"At 12, I qualified for 100m rather than the 400m in the national age groups," he said. "But when I was 15, my coach, Dave Calleja, told me to specialise in longer distances. He said one day it would come together, and it did."

Four years ago Smith was a silver medallist at the junior European championships and in 1994 he reached the final of the World Championships. Unlike Michelle Smith, he has not come from nowhere. His opponents know all about him and the steady progress he is making. It is how he will perform with Olympic attention focused on him that intrigues.

"Only six people have broken 15 minutes," Smith, who is banging against that barrier, said, "and only three of them are in Atlanta. There's a chance of a medal. Let's get to the final first."

That should be an intriguing contest because both he and Perkins prefer to begin quickly, burning rivals off with an initial, lung-busting burst of speed. In the first-two-past-the-post trials in Sheffield, Smith set off like it was a 200m race and had ensured his position on the plane to Atlanta at about a quarter into the distance.

Smith remembers the race well. "Paul Palmer, who also qualified, spoke to me afterwards and said: 'I'm not going in one of your races again; you go out too fast.' Perkins will be trying to do the same, so it should be interesting."

It will. In a week when British medal contenders have not exactly been plentiful, he is the genuine article. Scotland's Smith is poised to join Ireland's version on the podium.