SWIMMING: Snelling instils sense of success

SWIMMING SHOULD be all about racing, but often it is about beating the clock, which can be the only familiar sight in an unfamiliar environment. However, the introduction of semi-finals at this week's European Championships, which start today in Istanbul, will put the emphasis on the one reason everyone is here - to race.

Paul Palmer has welcomed the new format, which will also be used in the Sydney Olympics next year. "The sport is about winning races and this will make a lot of the races more tactical. I think it is a great idea," he said. "And hopefully, people will see the semis and want to find out what happens in the final the next day."

The 38-strong team arrived here on Friday and, for once, came without the empty rhetoric of being the best prepared team ever, and hoping for a medal or two. This time the senior swimmers have been together as a team since 1994 and they grow stronger with each other's successes. Palmer joins James Hickman, Mark Foster, Sue Rolph, Alison Sheppard, Karen Pickering and Graeme Smith as an elite group that can win multiple medals for Britain, and who will be disappointed if they do not exceed the two gold, one silver and three bronze medals from Seville in 1997.

Since Deryk Snelling was appointed the national performance director after Britain's dreadful showing at the Atlanta Olympics three years ago, he has made two specific changes which appear to be working.

The first was to throw money at swimming. It seemed everyone was taken on a national team training camp and included in international meets. Criticised for it at the time, Snelling knew that for the cream to rise to the top he needed plenty of milk. And in Britain at the time that he took charge, there was just not enough. Snelling has been proved right as his decision has raised the general standard of the national team, making those at the top work harder to keep their places.

The second change was to bang his head against the wall of English tradition, and force the message through that swimming is a team sport and that British swimmers have every right to stand on medal podiums the world over. The last three years of international travel and competition has finally created a group who are not afraid to win and who increasingly see their team-mates doing so.

Snelling's focus on developing the relay squads has proved to be the right move. The men's 4 x 200 freestyle team are the defending European champions and the women's 4 x 100 freestyle team are expected to improve on the bronze they won two years ago. This initially created eight world class swimmers who know what it is like to win medals. Add to this the individual successes, and it is becoming a formidable team, focused on success in Sydney and beyond.

One of the highlights of this week will be Foster's attempt to win two individual gold medals. In both the 50 metres freestyle and 50m butterfly, he has held the short course world records. In the long course, 50m pool he will dispute the title of "fastest man in water" with the European record holder and triple Olympic champion, Alex Popov, of Russia.

Today though, sees Foster and James Hickman begin with the 50m butterfly. Paul Palmer will be defending his 200m freestyle title and Sue Rolph starts her week in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay team.

Here in Istanbul, the wind blows off the Bosphorus to cool a sweltering city. It is hoped that the same blast of fresh air, which caused havoc at the weekend for the divers on the 10m tower, will assist the swimmers as they shrug off their amateur past, and step from Istanbul across the threshold to a new, professional, exciting future that will lead them on to Sydney.