In the Pool: Team GB can make a bigger splash in 2012

Britain's swimmers did well at the last Olympics, but Dennis Pursley, the squad's new head coach, thinks they can do even better in 2012. Nick Harris hears why and outlines other aquatic areas of improvement

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

America and Australia are the undisputed superpowers of swimming but Britain will develop into the world's third force, according to Dennis Pursley, the American who is the new head coach of British Swimming.

Giving his first major interview yesterday since being appointed last October, Pursley also told The Independent that Britain should be grateful to his controversial predecessor, Australia's Bill Sweetenham, for "turning around the ship" of underachievement.

When Pursley talks, it is worth listening, because he knows all about producing champions. As the head of USA Swimming between 1989 and 2003, he led his teams to the top of the medal table at three straight Olympics, put in place a US programme that has made America the No 1 nation in the pool, and produced and nurtured Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever.

Pursley is now in charge on this side of the Atlantic, on a contract that will run to the 2012 London Olympics, and he believes Britain can establish itself as the clear challenger to his home country and to Australia, who he says "are in great shape" in second. "It's not realistic to say that we [Britain] can get on top of those two," he says. "But it is realistic to separate ourselves from the next tier of nations who are currently competing for third place."

In Beijing last summer, the US won 31 swimming medals (12 gold, nine silver and 10 bronze) and Australia 20 (6-6-8) with Britain up to third (2-2-2) thanks largely to Rebecca Adlington's two golds, plus three medals in the newly introduced 10-kilometre marathon events.

The big European nations of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Russia and Hungary, as well as Japan and China are Britain's closest challengers, but Pursley took his current job because, he says, "all the pieces of the puzzle are here" for success.

For that he praises Sweetenham, a no-nonsense operator who pushed his athletes hard (to the point of accusations of bullying, unproved) and fought hard for new facilities.

Pursley says: "I know Bill is controversial but I knew the foundation of British swimming would be solid after six years of his tenure... Much of the success British swimming is enjoying now is attributable to his leadership."

Pursley adds that Britain, with the likes of Beijing medallists Adlington, Jo Jackson and David Davies to the fore, has "momentum, and momentum is key to success".

The prospect of leading a British team into a London Games attracted Pursley, who acknowledges home water as a "huge advantage" and an "incentive" to his charges. The training environment that Sweetenham established was a lure too.

This is exemplified by five new intensive training centres with 50-metre pools and the best support services money can buy in Bath, Loughborough, Stockport, Stirling and Swansea.

"From the outside looking in, there's been a dramatic change in the culture [of British swimming]," says Pursley. "Not everybody likes Bill's style but you can't argue with the results. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat or climb a mountain... Diplomacy probably isn't his strong suit, but then maybe lacking diplomacy is his strong suit. He doesn't sugar-coat it. He tells it like it is... Bill had to turn the ship around."

Adlington and Jackson both swam inside the 400 metres freestyle world record this week, a feat that Pursley applauds while saying he wants "a team that doesn't ride on the back of one or two swimmers".

He is confident in the strength in depth of his resources, though, and expects "to win significantly more medals in a wider range of events" in 2012 than in 2008. Relays will get more attention, with new training camps established with the aim of making improvements. Britain has a particularly strong group of young women swimmers emerging, and Pursley knows that Adlington and Jackson's medals in China can only inspire their team-mates to prosper. "It has a huge impact on the British swimmers every time they see one of their own breaking a world record, winning an Olympic gold medal," he adds. It increases the belief that it can happen for them too."

Case Study One: Water Polo

Water polo is the poor relation in British aquatic sport, and to Fran Leighton, a leading player on the women's team, that presents a dilemma. The relatively small amount of Lottery funding currently available is about to shrink. The best women's players will stop getting £600 a month in subsistence cash and get £250 instead. The men's team will drop from £600 to zero. Coaching and support services will also be cut.

All this will happen from next month because UK Sport, which dishes out Lottery support, decided that the victims of a £50m hole in its budget would be "no-hoper" sports, including weightlifting, fencing, table tennis and water polo among others. They are adjudged to be poor bets for medals at the 2012 Olympics and therefore subject to budget cuts of up to 75 per cent on previous levels.

An elite programme involving dozens of the best water polo players and coaches, based in Manchester but, by necessity, requiring lots of training camps and travelling to events, must now operate on funding slashed from £1.2m to around £360,000 a year. While British Swimming's new £15m six-year sponsorship deal with British Gas for all aquatic sport will provided an unspecified top-up, it will far from plug the gap.

The London Olympics, three years away, offers host berths to both the GB men's and women's teams, with no qualifying criteria attached. Leighton's dilemma arises because nobody in authority can or will say yet whether either the women's team (the stronger internationally, aspiring to top-eight status) or the men's (not so good, but improving) will take up their places.

Ultimately, that is a decision for the British Olympic Association. In practical terms it will fall to British Swimming. The unsatisfactory interim response from both is that the teams will only compete if they are deemed "competitive".

Nick Hume, GB water polo's national performance director, says the Lottery cuts mean "a severe shortfall that's going to compromise the programmes. With that shortfall we need to come up with innovative processes to remain in the race for 2012."

New sponsors are being sought, and solutions being explored, including asking "friends of water polo" (basically family and friends) to bankroll the Olympic dream.

"There's no other job in the world where you'd be in this position with no firm performance criteria," says Leighton, an effervescent 26-year-old from Rotherham who put a career in marketing with adidas on hold several years ago.

Leighton teaches swimming four days a week to make ends meet. Less money from next month will mean more "money work" hours and less time for training. Her days already start at 5.25am and end late to stay at the level needed to compete. She is not alone in wondering whether it is worth it. "My sport is my life, I have no time for hobbies, everything else is secondary," she says. "I've got no problem putting my life on hold until I'm 30, if we get support, or if we know there's the chance of the Olympics." Leighton says playing in London "would mean everything".

Hume points out that "the Greek women's team were in a similar situation in development terms the same distance out from their Games in 2004 as we are now, and they ended the 2004 Games with the silver medal".

The Greeks had investment. The British, frustrated, live in hope.

Case Study Two: Synchronised Swimming

Britain's synchronised swimmers broke new ground last week when they won two medals at the German Open against a world-class field that included Olympic medallists from Spain and Japan, as well as leading swimmers from the major "synchro" nations of China, France and Canada. Jenna Randall, 20, won bronze in the solo event, while the GB team also picked up bronze – their first ever medal in any international competition – in the team-combination event. The event was the first under the charge of new head coach Tatiana Tsym, formerly coach of the Russian team.

Tsym's aim for 2012 is to produce medal-winning British athletes in London and she will be assisted by higher levels of Lottery funding. It has risen 110 per cent on the back of improved performances in recent years. These include Randall and her duet partner, Olivia Allison, coming 14th at the Beijing Games. The pair then made waves at a post-Games event in Madrid by wearing flamenco shoes as part of their costume. On a less frivolous note, Britain will try to foster fresh interest in the sport by hosting the European Junior Championships next month in Gloucester.

Case Study Three: Paralympians

When Dave Reddish returned from competing at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992 "nobody knew us and we didn't hear a peep," he recalls.

When the 13-year-old Ellie Simmonds came back from Beijing last year with two gold medals as part of the British Paralympic swimming team that won 41 medals (11 gold), she became a household name, the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year, and the youngest person ever to collect an MBE. "Ellie is special because of her age, but when athletes return now from the Games, there is recognition of achievement," says Reddish, who is now the performance director of British Disability Swimming.

Why the change? Attitudes in general. The status of the Paralympics – and money in the form of Lottery funding, and soon, some extra cash as part of British Gas's new sponsorship deal with British Swimming. Simmonds is in the ascendancy, as a freestyle specialist who Reddish thinks will not peak until 2016.

The new money will be spent in "areas we want to work more in, like schools and at county level". The elite programme is a priority. A recent open "talent day" audition at Ponds Forge unearthed two swimmers who were fast-tracked into the British juniors.

Case Study Four: Diving

The British diving team underachieved at the Beijing Games, winning no medals when one was the target set by UK sport. But things look bright heading to London 2012, with a maturing Tom Daley, who will be 18 that year, the poster boy of a young and vibrant squad. The GB diving team also has a new performance director, Alexei Evangulov, who led the Russian team to five medals (three silver, two bronze) at last summer's Olympics.

Evangulov flew to Doha yesterday with Daley for a tournament and will travel to events in China and Sheffield in coming weeks.

As well as Daley, Britain has a group of youngsters with vital Olympic experience under their belts from China. Nick Robinson-Baker and Ben Swain were seventh in the 3m springboard synchro event, with Tonia Couch and Stacie Powell eighth and 10th from the 10m platform in the individual event and eighth in the synchro event.

More divers will emerge in the next three years, and Daley wants to expand his repertoire from the 10m platform to the 3m springboard, when he is big enough to produce enough "bounce". His ideal schedule will include 10m and 3m solo and synchro events in London.

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