2009 was the oddest of years with a world championships that produced a hat-full of records, in amongst which there was some fantastic racing, widely derided as a circus and meaningless. In ordinary circumstances such results would be welcomed, but the large number of record breaking performances and the suspicions surrounding the suits that powered them overtook most people’s perceptions of the Rome vent.
Navigating this maelstrom, Britain’s swimmers had a whale of a meet, leading to one of their most successful competitions in the pool and if one includes the results from the open water, the most successful world championships return ever. One swimmer stood out from the crowd of medal winners however, and that swimmer is the 2009 pullbuoy swimmer of the year, Gemma Spofforth.
Spofforth joined an elite club of British swimmers in 2009, a small group that not only is a world long course champion but also a world record holder. The latter distinction could be made light of, particularly in light of events elsewhere in Rome, but Spofforth’s achievement needs to be placed in context. Whereas many of her rivals set lifetime bests in new and exotic polyurethane numbers, the British lady’s winning 100m backstroke time of 58.18 was achieved in the same Speedo LZR suit she wore in Beijing. While the performance enhancing aspects of that suit can’t be ignored, the fact that there was consistency between meets means that the achievement can rightly be considered as a genuine improvement year on year. The fact that it was still faster than all other suit powered efforts makes it even more special.
Spofforth is also one of a small number of British swimmers to emerge from time in the US collegiate system a better swimmer than she entered it. Her time at the University of Florida has certainly seen her develop form a fringe player in the GB national team into one of its most successful members, as well as a string of NCAA victories being achieved.
2010 will bring a new set of challenges, as it will for all swimmers facing new stricter suit rules. Spofforth’s record will be there to be shot at, but should be expected to last a while yet as athletes adjust to the new, old, demands of the sport. But the huge step up in status that Gemma will enjoy in 2010 makes her the one to beat. Being a world champion and world record holder in your signature event makes you the one that everyone wants to beat. She has shown immense mental toughness in the past, and will need all that fortitude to take on a double push for medals in Budapest and Delhi, with a challenge not least form her one team-mate Lizzie Simmonds. What will also be intriguing to watch is how she is able to improve her 200m backstroke, an event which so nearly brought her a second medal in Rome.
Whatever the outcome next year, 2009 was the year that Gemma Spofforth truly arrived on the world scene with the prospect of more to come as the swimming world moves inexorably towards the next Olympics.