James Parrack was one of Britains outstanding breastroke swimmers of the late 80’s and early 90’s. He represented Britain at the Seoul Olympics and England at the Auckland Commonwealth Games, where he won silver in the 100m breastroke, and still holds two masters world records (for 50 and 100 breastroke) in the 25-29 age group. Having now stopped swimming, James has followed his old adversary and friend Adrian Moorhouse into the field of television commentary and commentated on the recent World Championships for Eurosport. pullbuoy caught up with him to find out what he though of Fukuoka and British swimming in general.
You were at the World championships with Eurosport, what was your highlight of the week?
The highlight of the week was the women’s 4×200 freestyle team chaos, which ended with Britain winning gold. It was an unprecedented row and reflected very badly on FINA, but it made for terrific drama and was big news in Britain, which is just what the sport needs. Perhaps FINA should manufacture a few more news making crises, after all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
There was obviously a great deal of controversy about the women’s 4×200 relay – What did you make about the situation?
The situation descended into chaos and this is symptomatic of weak leadership in FINA. You cannot have the FINA boss saying on Wednesday that the timing system is working perfectly and on Friday saying there are problems. You cannot declare a result official and then declare it unofficial. You also cannot have the world governing body unable to manage their world championships, nor a large number of its membership signing a petition complaining about the timing system. Nor can you have a sport that gives the impression it condones drug taking.
That’s a fairly stiff accusation – do you feel that FINA, or even sports governing bodies in general, aren’t doing enough to tackle drug taking?
Of course they’re not. Not the IOC, not the IAAF, not FINA, certainly not cycling, none of them.
What did you make of the British performance as a whole?
I think the British team have made an amazing turnaround since Sydney. Deryk Snelling made some huge changes between 1996 and 2000 and won’t be thanked for the success we now appear to be having. But although he raised everyone’s expectations to new levels, his man management skills were lacking and that perhaps compromised the attitude of the team in Sydney. Bill has successfully changed this mindset and the last four years of hard work obviously paid off as we came back with 7 medals.
Many people have been saying that Fukuoka marks a turnaround in the fortunes of British swimming following the disappointing results in Sydney. Do you think that this is fair or is it too early to make a realistic judgment?
Remember that, although the championships were tough, even if the team had swum these times in Sydney, we would still have won nothing. The world will step up again in Athens, and we have to do the same.
The question British swimming has to ask is ‘What do we want to achieve in Athens?’ Is one medal a success, or is four? Until someone defines how we are going to measure ourselves, there will be no objective assessment of how well the team has done. That’s the first thing I would ask British swimming to do.
What do you make of the impact that Bill Sweetenham has made on British swimming?
Pretty big so far. He is someone who has so much experience and authority, and is so engaging about his views on the sport that you have to go along with him. I suspect that he will find it more difficult to change the views of local authorities and government agencies to implement the changes he knows we need to make. I hope he succeeds. Basically, it will take a generation to change the prevailing view and make sport a national priority. If not, we have to accept that in this country, we would rather have success in business and the arts rather than in sport.
The next long course championships for most of our swimmers will be the Commonwealth Games next year. How do these compare to global championships such as the recent worlds?
In swimming, the only big countries that care about the Commonwealths are the home nations, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is a really fun three way meet between England, Oz and Canada, and Scotland will do very well next year too. And for these countries the commies is a big deal. But the rest of the world don’t even know they exist. They couldn’t care less.
As a Commonwealth silver medallist yourself, how special is it to win a medal at the commonwealths?
For us, the Commonwealths are a big deal and the day I won the silver medal is one of the best of my life. EVERYONE back home knows about it and 11 years on people still remember and talk about it. I look back on that time with enormous pride and satisfaction. For me, it was a time of my life when the sun shone, I didn’t have a care in the world and every time I swam I swam fast.
Many coaches have been critical of the new Commonwealth games pool in Manchester – what do you think of it?
I think it will come right on the day and we should all be more supportive of the pool and the Games. It is going to be fantastic. If it isn’t, we can be critical then, but I think the criticism will keep the organisers sharp and working hard to prove everyone wrong. Yes, the pool should be 10 lanes, there should be easier access to the warm down pool and there should be more room for the swimmers and spectators. But, with the extra stands I think the crowd will be so close to the action that the atmosphere will be intense and if that happens, the pool will be hot.
Relatively speaking, there was practically no one in Norwich for the women’s 4×200 world record, yet it was one of the greatest moments at a swim meet any of us can remember. The atmosphere in there was unbelievable. The same will happen in Manchester.
For the forthcoming European short course championships a definite effort has been made in the selection policy to get more younger swimmers into the team. Many senior swimmers are bound to see this as reducing their chances of a swim in these championships. What do you think – should youth have its day?
The problem with youth is that it is wasted on the young, except in this case. I agree totally with the way this team is being selected, except I think Zoe Baker should be there for the 50 breast. I know that Bill doesn’t believe in creating 50 specialists, and as a national plan, I agree. But I think there are exceptions to rules, and she is probably one.
When you’re commentating do you ever wish you were swimming? Are you tempted to make a comeback in the masters pool like your contemporary Nick Gillingham?
Not for a second. It would be fun to race Nick again in Masters meets, but I’m not sure I want to commit to the training for it any more.
In your earlier days you shared a house with Adrian Moorhouse – what was it like living with one of your greatest rivals?
It was absolutely the best thing for my career. To see first hand how the very best in the world lives and trains was an education that shaped my views on so many things, not least how I could improve my swimming. He is so unique, I was lucky to have become such good friends with him. He showed me how to live like a champion and I showed him how to cook chilli and play backgammon properly, which I think is a fair trade. The question is why the hell he put up with me for so long.
Who is your favourite swimmer and why?
Who do I fancy the most you mean? I like them all.
What’s your favourite pool and why?
So much of my swimming life unfolded in Sheffield, that that would be one. Now it’s any pool under a hot sun that I’m lying beside while someone gorgeous brings me another cocktail.
Having ‘been there and done that’, what would be your number one piece of advice for any up and coming swimmers?
My all time number one piece of advice for anyone is to find out what they want to do, and then advise them to do it.