Male freestyle sprinters: a dying breed?

Just over two years ago, following some disappointing swims in the 100m freestyle at the 2000 Olympic trials, pullbuoy led with an article lamenting the lack of real quality in British men’s sprint freestyle. The intervening years have seen progress on a limited scale, but we still seem to lack that competitive edge on the world stage when it come to the two length event. Admittedly the 50s barrier long course barrier has been breached by Matthew Kidd, but that still leaves us well down on what can be termed world class in terms of performance and depth. In the shorter 50m sprint Mark Foster again remains Britain’s sole world class competitor, and there must be doubts over how much longer he is likely to compete.

British record holder Matthew
Kidd: out of sorts in Cambridge

photo ©

It is not a problem that has gone unnoticed by National Performance Director Bill Sweetenham. At his meeting with coaches following the disappointing performance of the sprint freestyle contingent at the British Short Course Championships, he was quick to brand male sprint freestyle programmes in this country as ‘terrific failures.’ Citing the results in Cambridge, where nobody even approached the qualification time for the European Short Course championships of 49.36, he was quick to point out the failure of many entrants to even achieve the national qualifying time of 51.4; in the heats of the 100m freestyle only 3 senior swimmers achieved that standard. This barely improved moving through the rounds, with only 6 of the semi-finalists and 7 of the finalists under that mark.

Sweetenham’s solution is brutally simple. If coaches in this country can’t produce sprint freestylers then he will go and find someone from overseas who can. That is exactly what the 52 year old Australian intends to do, and he is currently scouring the United States for a coach to run a national sprint programme, from a venue to be determined. The new 50m facility in Swansea was mooted as a likely base for such a programme but nothing has yet been set in stone.

All of which paints a decidedly gloomy picture of the situation, but there are glimpses of hope along the way. Bath’s Matthew Bowe, winner of the national title in Cambridge, is highly rated by Sweetenham, who views him as having great potential. “Matthew is very coachable, he has the right body shape and technical skills and I see him as worth investing in.” Bowe spent much of this summer training with world Short Course Champions Ashley Callus on the Gold Coast in Australia and has clearly benefited from the experience, but we must not put all our eggs in one basket.

That is something Sweetenham is clearly not intending to do and his plans for a sprint academy are just the first step on a journey that he hopes will unearth the next Alex Popov or Pieter van den Hoogenband – only this time he will hopefully be British.