After the first British World Championship trials in Manchester earlier this year, there was a certain sense of what might have been. For while some swimmers were sensational, the likes of James Goddard for example, many of Britain’s stalwarts failed to set the world alight.
Was this a sign that the highs of the last two years might be starting to fade? British swimming certainly thought so, as they announced their target for the Shanghai world championships as being only four medals, at least one being silver, 5 fewer than the squad achieved in the pool in Rome.
While that is almost certainly a case of managing expectations in the final build up to London 2012, it also represents an acceptance in the team management that a last world championship before an Olympics is tough and that eyes must not be taken off the main prize to be won in Stratford next year. If that means Shanghai is a means to an end so be it, it is the end that counts in this instance.
Not that the swimmers at the ASA Nationals, which also doubled as a last chance trial for the world championships team, seemed to be taking that much notice of this damping down, as they set about posting times at the top of the world leader boards.
Amongst those was a welcome return to form for Lizzie Simmonds. Remarkably out of form in Manchester, the Loughborough based backstroker returned to winning ways in Sheffield, posting the world’s second fastest time this year in the 200m backstroke and 6th fastest in the 100m event, securing herself two swims in China in the process.
Fran Halsall was another to catch the eye. She had already guaranteed her 100m freestyle spot back in March, but that didn’t stop her blasting her way to a 53.61 heat swim to announce her return to form after ankle surgery. Not only is that the fastest time in the world this year, it’s the third fastest time recorded at all since suits returned to their textile roots at the start of 2010. Only Dutch sprinter Ranomi Kromowidjojo has swum faster with Halsall herself holding the second fastest time at 53.58.
With that berth in the bag Halsall’s main aim for these championships had been to earn a spot in the 100m butterfly, with an eye on gaining international experience for contesting the event in London. That she didn’t manage that, despite posting the 5th fastest time in the world this year, owes much to the resurgence of Jemma Lowe, who pipped her Loughborough rival by just one one-hundredth of a second, and record the world number-four time this year. World number 5 this year Ellen Gandy was the British champion in March and must now be glad she booked her place at the first time of asking given the ferocity of the competition here.
Lowe was one of those whose standards slipped in Manchester but here she was back at top form gaining that 100m spot and also setting a lifetime best and Welsh record in the 200m event – placing herself 3rd in the World Rankings in an event she has already qualified for and pushing team-mate Ellen Gandy down a place.
On the men’s side, as has been the case the recently, the general standard couldn’t match the ladies, but there were some encouraging performances along the way. Anthony James of Plymouth Leander, posted the seventh best time in the world so far this year, winning the 100m fly in 52.13, while Chris Walker-Hebborn’s 1:57.20 in the 200m backstroke was sixth in the world rankings, placing himself on the team just behind British Champion, James Goddard. Robbie Renwick snuck into the world top 10 in the 200 free but will need to drop his times further to make an impression in China.
Meanwhile the male sprinters just about made the grade – Simon Burnett squeezing home in the 100m event and qualifying also in the 50m. Adam Brown’s March trials time was bettered in Sheffield by Grant Turner but both were outside the required mark in the 100m. A relay berth in the 4×100 seems assured however, with those three joined by newcomer James Disney-May, who cracked 50s for the first time at Ponds Forge, and probably Renwick who set a Scottish record.
Another Scot to make an impression on the selectors was Kris Gilchrist. After changing coaches just before the March trials, Gilchrist missed out in his favoured 200m breaststroke, but struck back here bagging selection in the 100m event and posting a world top 10 time over 200m. The selection horse had bolted in the longer event, with Bath team-mates Andrew Willis and Michael Jamieson already selected, but Gilchrist will now tailor his taper to the sprint event ahead of China.
At the end of the meet, almost a full complement of swimmers had booked themselves a ticket to the far east. The USA is not holding trials this year, with their team pre-selected last year, so world rankings have an air of the transient about them, but the times posted this week would suggest that many swimmers should make finals and that some will be in the medal hunt. Whether the cautious predictions of the hierarchy turn out to be wise words or not remains to be seen, but the last global championships before London show signs of eastern British promise.