Swimming: Rolph chooses champion course

Britain's 100 metre freestyle hope has worked tirelessly towards gold in Turkey next week.
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ROBERT M PIRSIG could have called his masterpiece "Zen and the art of Olympic swimming" when he wrote, "We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on `good' rather than `time' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes."

For Sue Rolph, that change in approach means getting the training process right, and the result will look after itself. Ultimate success, therefore, lies in the journey and not the arrival. Heading into the European Championships, and one year from the Sydney Olympics, Rolph has already taken one important step on this journey.

She is inspired by the motivations of pop psychology and agrees that no environment can of itself make champions inevitable; one must first choose to become a champion.

Sue Rolph walked away from the B final in the Atlanta Games in 1996 and publicly committed herself to winning the 100 metres freestyle in Sydney. She had made her choice and so she began her journey. It is a journey that has brought her two gold medals from last year's Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and a succession of British and Commonwealth records, most recently at the national championships earlier this month.

Her time of 55.05sec for the 100m freestyle makes her No 3 in the world this year. "Just to be ranked in the top few going into the Olympics, without the pressure of being No 1; that would do me," she said. "And then," she tails off, leaving lady fate to finish the race for herself.

No British women has yet won Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. At 21, she is entering her swimming prime. And no British woman has won gold in this event at the European Championships either. This year's competition will take place in Istanbul and the swimming programme begins on Monday, and is due to finish next Sunday.

Of the 39-strong British team, Rolph is one of the favourites for gold in both 100m free and 200 individual medley. She will join James Hickman, Paul Palmer, Mark Foster and Karen Pickering as potential champions, leading one of our strongest teams in the 72-year history of the event. Rolph has been to Istanbul before, for the European Junior Championships in 1993 and her dislike of the place is palpable.

Just 15 at the time, Turkey was a far cry from her native Newcastle. "The pool was just a pit, it was disgusting, man. The team was ill from the food and water... And the taxis, the taxis! There were no lines in the road and it was just chaos. We were told that we would be bought in exchange for camels. It was awful." There is a pause.

"But I suppose you just have to get on with it, don't you?" And getting on with it is what Rolph does best. She is affable and articulate, philosophical and practical. Yet her charming, easy-going exterior belies a more stubborn persona. In the race, as in training, she is fiercely competitive and brutally tough.

She does not like losing and is prepared to suffer through meticulous preparation to avoid it. "Perfect preparation prevents poor performance," she reminds me. "The five P's."

It is not surprising to discover that Rolph was a prodigious youngster. At 13 she won eight gold medals at the national age group championships. What is more surprising however, is that not one was for freestyle.

That particular talent was to come when she joined the senior group at Newcastle under coach Ian Oliver the following year. At 19 she was an Olympian and her journey started in earnest.

Rolph dismisses the old practice-makes-perfect nonsense with another of her favourites. "It's perfect practice that makes perfection," she says.

More evidence of a deep commitment to the process, not the result. A commitment that, two years ago, brought in the expertise of Carl Johnson, the man who coached Johnathan Edwards to the triple-jump world record. Johnson oversees the weight programme and has introduced plymetric bounding into Rolph's land work.

"The weight work is full-body weight lifting; the snatch, power cleans and squats," Johnson says. "We use electronic read-outs from the jump mat to monitor the bounding training. And we combine the land work with the swimming training to get the right preparation for the competitions. After two years, we know exactly what works and what doesn't."

The Newcastle club receives lottery funding as a designated elite training centre, and Rolph has used the resources to make her day-to-day training programme the right one.

"You have got to want to put the work in and I feel comfortable with the training; it's my life," she says. "I love competition and being the star but the thing that makes the difference is the bit that people never see." She is talking here about the process.

It is the 5am start every day. It's the six and a half hours of hard, sensory deprived, repetitive, tiring work. It is the harsh winter mornings in Newcastle when you finish morning training and it is still dark when you go home for breakfast. It is the wet hair. The cold swimsuits. It is the stress of the elite training group that lives with each other's emotional ups and downs.

This is the Zen journey focusing on the "good" and not the "time". And Rolph is one of the lucky few who combines a natural talent for swimming with a natural talent to train.

With a supportive family at home where she still lives, and Lottery money that will reward medal winners this summer, she has an environment that, while not exactly making champions inevitable, makes champions a lot more likely.