Swimming: Quick start will keep British confidence high

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Success for the British swimming team at the European Championships here this week will depend upon their ability to make a strong start. The swimming competition begins this morning and Britain's performance today will set the tone for the event, which ends on Sunday.

Once the first swimmer wins a medal, everybody will want one, so a good start is crucial. The true character of a team overflowing with confidence, and capable of giving Britain its most successful championships ever, will be revealed when it is time stand on the blocks. Either medal fever will grip the team or that confidence will pass out of the squad as quickly as their energy did when a bout of stomach upsets put the squad to bed for two days last week.

Still recovering is one of Britain's best hopes for medals in the 100 and 200 metres butterfly, James Hickman, who is hooked up to a glucose drip to put back the weight he has lost from the illness.

Leading the women's team in the first event of the competition, the 100m freestyle, will be Karen Pickering and Sue Rolph. While Britain's Olympic silver medallist from Atlanta, Paul Palmer, will do the same for the men.

Among Britain's best prospects for gold are Palmer in the 400m freestyle on Friday and Stockport's Olympic bronze medallist, Graeme Smith, in the 1,500m on Sunday - but it is the powerful relay squads which are likely to be the production line for medals this week, including gold. It is a conscious effort by Deryk Snelling, the national performance director, to build his squad around the relays.

"There are six medals to be won in the relays and we seriously hope to be medallists in all of them," he said yesterday. "This is a team which has trained in Florida and Australia this year and is conditioned for good results."

However well the British perform here, there is no doubt that most attention will fall on Ireland's triple Olympic gold medallist, Michelle Smith. Defending two titles from the last championships in Vienna in '95, she is trying to win an unprecedented six individual golds this year.

Smith has been unable to shake off allegations of drug use, which surfaced in Vienna and grew in volume in Atlanta. The world of swimming could be thrown into turmoil if she won all six events. Smith's phenomenal progress began in 1994 and coincided with her partnership with Erik de Bruin, a former Dutch athlete, who was suspended for four years for a positive drugs test in 1993.

A row between De Bruin and LEN, the sport's European governing body, in Vienna two years ago, when De Bruin used a false identity to accompany Smith to doping control, has been resolved after a hearing here and De Bruin has been accredited for these championships.