Swimming: Palmer the golden eye for Britain

James Parrack suggests the European swimming championships can boost national pride
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The Independent Online
Before he shaves off all his body hair, Paul Palmer looks like a young Ian Botham. At the European swimming championships which begin this week in Seville, he will try to perform like one.

In the same way that Botham led a one-man recovery in English cricket fortunes in 1981, Palmer will attempt to do what the athletes at the world championships in Athens failed to - win gold for British sport. Six days of competition begin on Tuesday and with 36 swimmers, the British are sending their strongest and largest team to compete at a European championships.

Palmer, 22, won Britain's first medal at the Atlanta Olympics last year, a silver in the 400 metres freestyle, and already has two others from the last two Europeans, in 1993 and 1995. He does not want another. "You could say I'm sick of silver now and I wouldn't be happy if I won another one. It's got to be gold this time. If I swim my PB, it certainly should be good enough to win," he said.

If Palmer is going to be Ian Botham, then Stockport's Graeme Smith could play Bob Willis. Smith, 21, won bronze in Atlanta in the longest swimming race, the 1,500m and, like Palmer, won silver at the last European championships in Vienna and expects to win in Seville.

In Atlanta, Palmer and Smith were beaten by a New Zealander and two Australians respectively, so can we expect golds from a competition only open to Europeans?

"Well that's the way I view it as well, so there's no reason why not," Palmer said. For Smith, however, his nearest rival is a fast-improving Italian, who will also want to take advantage of the absence of Australians. "I am planning to go for it from the start, and if I can build up a lead, the others will let me go and battle for the silver," Smith said, preparing to do things the hard way. "I'm here to win it and finish the year at the top of the world rankings."

While Palmer and Smith will be the strongest challengers for gold, there is a confidence that this team will have their most successful competition ever, surpassing the nine medals they won when the championships came to Sheffield in 1993. That was the last time Britain won gold, when Nick Gillingham won his third successive breaststroke title. Gillingham has now retired from the sport and it is up to this team to begin a legacy of their own.

The backbone of the British challenge will come from the powerful relay teams, all six of whom have realistic medal ambitions. Individual success is likely to come from Smith's team-mate and Olympic finalist James Hickman in the 100 and 200m butterfly, Neil Willey in the 100m backstroke and Britain's sprint specialist, Mark Foster.

Susan Rolph will be the women's best chance of an individual medal, although there is no doubt that the focus of attention will be on Ireland's triple Olympic gold medallist, Michelle Smith, as she competes for an unprecedented six titles.

Smith has consistently failed to dispel doubts about drug use, which arose after her extraordinary successes in Atlanta, but she is in a difficult situation. If she wins more gold medals the cries of cheating will continue and if she doesn't, it will add to the speculation that she must have done so before Atlanta. It would be stretching the bounds of credibility if she won all six - and it would send world swimming into apoplexy.

The difficulty of creating a champion was highlighted at the Atlanta Olympics last year and at last week's athletics world championships. The man trying to make sure it happens in swimming is Deryk Snelling. Appointed national performance director last year after over 30 years of international success in Canada, can he have made a difference already?

Arguably not in the case of Palmer or Smith, but for the rest of the team he probably has, just by being there. With Snelling at the top, there is a feeling among the swimmers that something is going to happen and this is enough in itself to lift their performance.

"The positive attitude which has built up should be reflected in a broader base of good performances in finals," Snelling said from the team's training camp in Grenada. "The relays will be the key to bringing team spirit instead of relying on one or two performers. Success on the podium will depend on how well we can motivate our Olympic-class swimmers to that way of thinking again, and whether our rivals have done the same thing."

From next year, however, it will be up to him to deliver more than a talismanic quality. He demands elite performance from his athletes and they will rightly demand an equally good performance from him in the build- up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The hope is that swimming can set a precedent in Seville which the athletes can repeat when they come here for their next world championships in 1999.