For the first time in a while, Britain’s swimmers are approaching a global championship with a spring in their step and confidence that they can bring home medals where it counts. Two years ago, the British team surpassed expectations in bringing home seven medals from Fukuoka, but have now set themselves a target they will hope to at least match, if not better this summer. Several events stand out as being Britain’s best hopes, so we took a look at them.
The women’s backstroke events perhaps give Britain one of its best chances of winning medals, maybe even of having a world champion. Katy Sexton and Sarah Price are currently well up the world rankings and indeed Sexton is the world’s current number one on both the 100m and 200m events following her astounding Commonwealth record performances at April’s British Championships. Price is not far behind however and has been the more impressive performer in the intervening months. Whoever wins the British battle will stand a tremendous chance of coming home with a world championship medal. On major championship form that would be Price, who has the better record over the past two years, and she will not want Sexton to beat her twice in one year, but if the Portsmouth swimmer can replicate her form of Sheffield, she will be tough to beat by anyone, let alone her team-mate.
That said, the British ladies will not have it all their own way. The incomparable Natalie Coughlin stands between them and world glory and she will be an extremely tough competitor to beat as the only woman ever under 60s for the 100m event. In addition, Germany’s Antje Buschschulte and Russia’s Stanislava Komarova, will also challenge strongly for medals.
The distance freestyle events look set to provide some of the most intriguing racing of these championships, but the reality is that the intense battles will not be for the gold, but for the minor medals. Barring something extraordinary, there seems little doubt that Grant Hackett will retain his 800m and 1500m titles, but behind the Aussie maestro anything could happen. Britain’s Graeme Smith won Silver and Bronze two years ago, and in the absence of Ian Thorpe from the 800m freestyle, he would seem to be on for at least a repeat performance, but the emergence of three very fast teenagers over the intervening period may throw a spanner in the works for him.
Chief amongst this trio is Russia’s Yuri Prilukov, who at just 19 recently broke Vladimir Salnikov’s European record over 800m, and who won the 1500m at the European Short Course Championships last year. Second in that race was our own 18 year-old David Davies who will also expect to be challenging for the podium in Barcelona, with the stated aim of dipping under 15 minutes for the longer race. Finally, the American sensation Larsen Jensen, also 18, completes the trio, and having posted a mighty impressive 15:00.81 at the Duel in the Pool earlier this year will be a force to be reckoned with. Whatever happens, there will be an almighty scramble for those silver medals, with second string Australian Craig Stevens also well ranked coming into these championships.
Britain’s women will be defending their title from Fukuoka, which they won in controversial circumstances. The USA and Australia were disqualified that day to hand GB the gold and will once again be among the main challengers, with the German team that took the European title last year certain to be in the medal hunt.
But the situation is promising for our girls. The USA do not look as strong this year as they have in the past and Australia will be without Petria Thomas and Elka Graham is competing under intense medical supervision, while Germany will have to overcome the absence of individual world record holder Franziska van Almsick. The British team welcomes back three of the 2001 champions with Karen Pickering, Karen Legg and Janine Belton likely to be joined by Melanie Marshall, who has established herself as a sub 2-minute swimmer this year. It will also be intriguing to see if fly specialist Georgina Lee will make the team, perhaps at the expense of Belton, having performed so admirably in the corresponding event final in Manchester last year, when the English team defeated the Australian squad. One thing is for sure though, the race will produce fireworks.
Alison Sheppard has come along way since her international debut some 15 years ago. She now sits towards the very top of the world rankings for her specialist event, the 50m freestyle and has been swimming consistently fast in that discipline over the past two years. Fast enough indeed, that she finished 2002 as the world’s number one swimmer in that event. This year has seen the return of Inge de Bruijn to competition and the Dutch lady will provide a stern test of Sheppard’s world title aspirations. One should also not discount the likes of Sweden’s Therese Alshammar or new Australian sensation Lisbeth Lenton. Sheppard though is, in the words of Bill Sweetenham, “the model professional” and is certain to be perfectly prepared for these championships. An improvement on her fourth place from Fukuoka seems inevitable. A world title seems possible, but in the shortest of sprints anything can happen. Sheppard will also race over 100m and is sure to have her eyes set firmly on Sue Rolph’s 4 year old British record, as she seeks to be the first British women under 55s.
At the other end of the distance spectrum Becky Cooke will be looking to improve on her Fukuoka showing. She finished 2002 ranked 4th and 5th in the 800 and 1500 freestyle events she is likely to contest in Barcelona and should make finals in both. Medals are an outside possibility, and Cooke has already shown her major championship credentials with two titles at last year’s Commonwealth Games, but the field will be strong and she will need to be at her best. Germany’s Hannah Stockbauer and the USA’s Diana Munz will start as favourites, but should be challenged by Eva Ritsov, Hua Chen and Jana Henke.
Rather like the women’s backstroke events, Britain has a surfeit of talent in the men’s breaststroke events at the current time. Even including the days of Moorhouse and Gillingham, there has never been quite such depth in the discipline. In the past it would have been absurd to have thought a British team could go to a world championships without the reigning Commonwealth champion and a swimmer ranked fourth in the world, but that is exactly the situation facing Adam Whitehead and Chris Cook respectively, who will watch the championships from home.
From those who are going, there is ample cause for optimism about possible outcomes. James Gibson currently sits third in the world rankings, and seems very confident he can improve on his Commonwealth record performance of 1:00.49 he set in the British trials in April. Indeed since then, Gibson has recorded numerous 1:01 times and has also dipped under 61 seconds on at least two occasions. He remains Britain’s best hope over 100m and will also be competitive in the 50m, where he is currently ranked second. Darren Mew leads the world rankings in that event and will want to make up for a disappointing Commonwealth Games last year. Mew will chase Gibson hard in both events and may have the edge in the shorter event. Expect both to make the finals of the sprint events and possibly emerge with medals. They will have to overcome the USA’s Ed Moses, the in form Russian Dimitri Komornikov and the world’s fastest 100m swimmer this year, Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, although the absence of world record holder Roman Sloudnov is a boost to their hopes. British medals are a distinct possibility, but are by no means certain.
Over the longer distance, Ian Edmond will want to erase the bad memories of 2001 where he failed to make the 200m final having been disqualified for a butterfly kick in the semi. His swim at the trials was a whisker away from Nick Gillingham’s British record and if he were to break that then a high placing should be his. He will be up against the two fastest swimmers ever in this event however. Kitajima was the first man ever under 2:10 last year, but his world record was broken recently by Komornikov and those two should therefore be battling for the title.
If Mark Foster is given the opportunity to race the 50m freestyle sprint, there is every possibility of a podium finish. Foster has yet to convince on a world level over the one length dash, having lacked consistency in the long course pool. On his day, however, there is no doubt he is a potential winner of the event but he will need to get the better of the likes of Popov, Lezak, Schoemann and Hawke.
Britain’s sole long course world record holder Zoe Baker will start as a firm favourite for the 50m breaststroke, but will have to defeat long time adversaries Emma Igelstrom and Xuejuan Luo if she is to improve on her bronze medal from Fukuoka. In the men’s fly, Steve Parry has been in impressive form this season, recording times under 1:57 for the 200m event on several occasions. The incomparable Michael Phelps and European record holder Franck Esposito will start as favourites, but a British record swim from the Manchester man could see him just sneak into a podium placing.