Willey shows way to Seville

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The Independent Online

Neil Willey is on course to win gold at the European Championships in Seville next month after winning the 100 metres backstroke on the final day of the National Championships here yesterday.

Willey, 20, held off a strong challenge from Adam Ruckwood, winning in a time of 56.42sec and will go to Seville ranked first in the event.

The British team will be one of the strongest ever to compete in the European Championships and success at this level requires swimmers to perform regularly at a higher level than they are used to in this country.

Most of the team competed here tired from a long period of hard training and it is a sign of significant progress that good training has successfully been transferred into a weekend of quality racing.

The fact that so many of our top swimmers swam close to their best times is indicative of their desire to adapt to the changing demands of a sport entering the professional era.

One man dominating this weekend was 24-year-old Richard Maden, who claimed his third breaststroke title of the championships.

He added the 200m to victories in the 50m and 100m and is the man to continue the success British breaststroke swimming has enjoyed for over 20 years.

A new legacy is being created by two of the most exciting swimmers for the future. Stockport Metro's James Hickman has been setting a new standard in butterfly since his Olympic final in Atlanta last year and he has now been joined by 20-year-old Stephen Parry from Liverpool, a second-year student at Florida State University, who was looking to complete a hat- trick of victories in the butterfly events this weekend.

While Parry and Hickman are likely to battle for international glory, they were both overshadowed yesterday by the surprise victory of the Welsh record holder, David Jones.

Karen Pickering showed a timely return to form after an accident last November hindered her preparation for Seville. These championships have marked a turning point in a year Pickering would prefer to forget, but she was just not strong enough to hold off the challenge from Vicky Horner in the 400m freestyle.

Pickering will anchor two women's relay teams which are expected to improve on the bronze medals they won at the European Championships in Vienna two years ago.

It is a shame that the organisation of a sport, benefiting from enormous Lottery funding, still has difficulties as the National Championships were in danger of being drowned out by a worrying upbeat gymnastics display next door.

There were no such problems for Olympic bronze medalist, Graeme Smith, who proved he is a a strong favourite for gold medals both in Seville and beyond. After his world-class performance in the 1500m free style on Friday, he again dominated in the 400m event, winning his second title in a time of 3min 55.86sec.

On these performances, Smith will lead a confident team to what could be their best European championships in Seville and towards Olympic successes in the next Olympic games in Sydney in 2000.

Results, Digest, page 19