By the time of the 2006 European Championships it was 7 years since Britain had sent a proper team, harking back to the 1999 edition in Istanbul. The 2002 meet had directly clashed with the Commonwealth Games, while 2004 saw only Mark Foster attending in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to secure Olympic qualification.
The 2006 Championships came several months after that year’s Commonwealth Games and Britain sent a full team that included several up-and-comers and Bill Swettenham’s so called “fast track” group. That included Rebecca Adlington who took a surprise silver in the 800m freestyle, foreshadowing the success she would go on to have later in her career. But it was on the final day that the crowning glory took place.
Britain’s women’s medley relay team had qualified fastest from the heats, so stood a good chance of a medal, but the final served up some even better drama. Melanie Marshall led the team off, having taken bronze in the 200m backstroke, and put the team in the heart of the field at the first takeover.
It was then the race got interesting for the GB viewer. Kirsty Balfour, in the midst of the best season of her career on the clock and fresh from individual 100m silver and 200m gold in Budapest that week, uncorked an incredible breaststroke leg of 1:06.33 – 1.73 seconds faster than anyone else in the field. That blew the race wide open and sent Terri Dunning into the fly leg with a 0.75s lead.
The Birmingham swimmer had fallen at the semi final stage of the individual event, but now stepped up superbly with a 58.71 split, the third fastest of the race, to extend Britain’s lead to 0.91s. And now it was edge of the seat time as the final legs hit the water.
Britain had a young Francesca Halsall anchoring, on her senior GB debut following on from her appeance for England at the Commonwealth Games. She’d finished a creditable 4th in the 100m individual, but that had been won in a world record of 53.30 by Britta Steffen. And who was anchoring the German team? That’s right, the fastest women in the world. Even with a 1.57 second deficit to make up, the race was far from a foregone conclusion.
Steffen went about chipping away at that lead while Halsall fought all the way to keep her at bay. The German posted a scorching 52.75 leg but Halsall’s 54.21 was enough to hold on by just 0.11s and gold was Britain’s.
It led to a remarkable run of success in this event; Britain retained the title in 2008 and 2010, skipping the 2012 championships, before taking bronze in 2014, mounting the top of the podium once again in 2016, and securing another bronze in Glasgow in 2018. All sparked by a memorable win in Budapest.
Banner Image: Freeimages.com