When thinking about Britain’s prospects at the forthcoming world championships, there is considerable cause for optimism that the squad can maintain the momentum built in the waters of Melbourne and Budapest last year. With the 2007 meet the last chance to make a mark on a global stage before the world moves to Beijing, the swimming is sure to be fast and furious, much as it was in Barcelona four years ago, and the British team will be looking to match the standard of performance they set there rather than the rather limp showing they produced in Montreal two years later.
Any effort to preview medal hopes is inevitably dominated by the prospects of Kirsty Balfour. Much has been written and said about the Scot had a breakthrough year last year and is a huge podium prospect. It could be said that she is unlucky to be racing in an event where the best competitor is streets ahead of the rest of the world, but that is the way it is and Balfour would be the last to bemoan her lot. The European Record, missed by just one one-hundredth of a second at the Commonwealth Games must be under threat, and a performance at that level should bring with it a medal.
Perhaps unusually given Britain’s up and down history in the discipline, the relay teams give cause for optimism, especially in the 4x200m events. Both men’s and Women’s teams have shots at the podium, with perhaps the men, 3rd ranked globally last year despite Ross Davenport and Simon Burnett being off the pace in Budapest, being the better bet. Were the women to all be swimming at their very best, they would be an extremely good bet for a medal, but as it stands, they remain a possible rather than a probable. The ladies medley team are another potential podium place following their dramatic European Championship win. That performance ranked them 3rd globally in 2006, behind Australia and the US who are surely the favourites again, but they will be unable to rely so heavily on Balfour this time around; on the backstroke leg in particular, Mel Marshall will need to find a second or so if the team is to be competitive.
Britain’s medallists from two years ago should also feature in finals and would hope to add to their medal tally. Caitlin McClatchey will go over 400m in the first finals session of the meet, looking to match or better her bronze medal from last time around. She’ll need to bring her Commonwealth Games form with her, and if she can do that over the shorter 200 free later in the week, will be a very strong contender. Team-mate Jo Jackson will also fancy her chances over the 8 lap event.
David Davies has been the most consistent of Britain’s swimmers over the past three years, but faces a stern test to repeat his medal winning feats this time around. The 1500m looks as tough as it ever has done and should provide some intriguing racing. The young Welshman will need to be at the top of his game but the prospect of pressurising Grant Hackett, unconvincing since his return form injury, may be the motivation that he, and the rest of the field needs.
Meanwhile, Liam Tancock has built on his Montreal exploits, transferring his 50m speed into the 100m event and edging into contention in the longer event. The sprint perhaps remains his best chance of e medal, but he remains an outside chance in both, as does Commonwealth 50m champion Matt Clay.
Then there are the long shots, the maybes, the outside smokers. Can Simon Burnett pull out something special in the sprint freestyles? Will the two Rebeccas, Cooke and Adlington challenge in the 800m? Can James Goddard return to his sparkling 2004 form and will his old sparring partner Gregor Tait make a statement in the medleys? Will one of the young tyros such as Lizzie Simmonds or Fran Halsall take giant strides forward and onto the podium? We can but wait and see, although they remain outside chances at best.
While all this can give a largely justifiable sense of optimism, it must be tempered by the knowledge that these championships will be fast, that the results here will give all who swim a boost as they begin their final preparations for Beijing. We may therefore have to be content with finalists and British records rather than medallists and glory.