Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Britain's Swimmers Fail To Rise Above The Ordinary
By Shane Thomas
With the London Olympics now less than a year away, Britain's swimmers returned from Shanghai after a largely chastening time at the World Championships. British swimming is used to being bracketed along with the country's tennis - receiving sporadic attention and ending up as a punch-line for comedians who don't have any decent material.
But things changed at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Rebecca Adlington's stunning & unexpected gold medal in the 400 metres freestyle led to what was regarded as a triumph for Britain. The seeds were sown by authoritarian coach Bill Sweetenham, who arrived from Australia with a very clear mantra, "Who wants to be ordinary!"
It took a few years for Sweetenham's demanding training methods to take effect, but it would be blinkered to ignore his pervasive influence as Britain's swimmers got used to the medal rostrum, even though he left his post the year before.
No longer are Britain's swimmers expected to qualify for major finals; They're expected to feature at the business end of them, matching & even surpassing the more established powers of America, China and Australia.
However, most of our medal hopes failed to live up to their billing at the world championships, albeit with extenuating circumstances. While Adlington finished second in the 400 metres final on the meet's opening day, Gemma Spofforth failed to defend her 100 metre backstroke title. She failed to even make the semi-final. In her defence, she fell prey to illness while also still hampered by grief after the death of her mother two years ago.
Another one of British swimming marquee names, Fran Halsall also fell short of the high standards expected of her. She fought through a bout of food poisoning to win five medals at last year's Commonwealth Games, but after looking certain to medal in this year's 100 metre freestyle final, she was reeled in and ended in fourth place by little more than a fingertip.
Again, a little context. Halsall had ankle surgery earlier in the year, and went into the world championships with only four months of training. It seemed that her inability to finish in the top 3 was a simple result of her being undercooked.
But it wasn't all bad news. Adlington showed that she remains the queen of the 800 metre freestyle, punishing her rival, Lotte Friis on the last leg to add the world title to her Olympic crown. The Adlington vs Friis contest will be one of the most fascinating of London 2012.
Added to this, Liam Tancock showed that it's not only Britain's women who get to have all the fun. He retained his 50 metre backstroke title with a storming display, and has to be the favourite to repeat this in front of his home crowd next summer. Hannah Miley & Ellen Gandy also overachieved by bringing home silver medals.
As with most things in life, perception is key. Britain's medal haul in Shanghai actually surpassed the medals won in Beijing. The difference is that Britain aren't considered a second-rate swimming nation any more, they have to be able to look the giants of the sport in the eye and not blink.
It was disconcerting to hear a lot of, “It was OK”, “I’m a bit disappointed”, “I’ll see what tomorrow brings”, “I’m quite pleased with that” platitudes. For those fans who will be in the magnificent Aquatic Centre to watch Britain's swimmers in 11 months time, excuses will not be enough. Personal problems, illness & injury don't get noted in the record books. They're just another obstacle that must be overcome to achieve greatness.
Britain's disappointing showing over the past couple of weeks could be beneficial in the long run. They need to use the pain of defeat as a motivator to improve. The last Olympics were no fluke, Britain are a genuinely accomplished swimming nation these days. They have the talent, but do they have the mettle?
The Olympics are the biggest stage for these athletes, especially as it's in their home country. To quote Sweetenham, next summer we'll truly see who wants to be ordinary.
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