Where have all the freestylers gone?

Following the failure of all of our 100m freestylers to make the qualification time for Sydney at the recent Olympic trials, a quick look at the state of sprint freestyle in this country with relation to the world stage makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. Amongst themselves, our top 100m freestyle swimmers are evenly matched and often provide close exciting races, but the big picture is sadly not so rosy.

The Olympic qualifying time was set by national performance director Deryk Snelling at 50.09, just 5 one hundredths of a second off the British record of 50.04 held jointly by Nick Shackell and Gavin Meadows. It was always going to be tough, but I for one hoped that someone would rise to the challenge and become the first Briton under 50 seconds. Mark Stevens, the winner of the trials may have been justified in his criticism of the time, when he pointed out that it was a full second faster than the time set for the 1996 Olympics, but our swimmers have to realise that being a big fish in the British pond is no use when it comes to racing the likes of Popov, Van Den Hoogenband and Walker.

Compare this situation to that in the United states trials where no fewer than the first 10 finishers in the semi-finals of the 100m free swam under 50s, 4 of those inside 49s, and the first 11 swam times as fast or faster than our national record. It is all to easy to base this discrepancy on differences in population size, but even that argument would lead you to expect one British swimmer to make it under that magical 50 second barrier. The situation isn’t much better at 50m either, with the notable exception of Mark Foster, we are lacking any other real world class swimmers.

In no other event do we struggle as much to produce world class performers, and indeed the performances of our top women suggest that it is not the system that has been failing. There seems little that the ASA or the ASFGB can do to rectify this situation which hasn’t already been at least considered. It is to be hoped that the continuation of lottery funding may allow someone the opportunity to reach their potential and join the elite, but we can only hope that it happens sooner rather than later