Mission accomplished for Brits, but still questions to answer

Rebecca Adlington
Rebecca Adlington was Britain's top performer in Shanghai. Photo: Getty Images

Britain’s swimmers have packed up their belongings from their Shanghai hotel and now head off on holiday, 5 of the team carrying World Championship medals in their hand luggage as they return to the UK en route to a deserved period of relaxation. But while the 14th World Championships are likely to be deemed a success overall for Britain, there are still questions to be answered about the British performance as the team now refocuses its gaze on London 2012.

In one way it was mission accomplished for a team who had a target of 5 pool medals and 5 medals overall in Olympic events. They returned with three golds and two silvers, only Liam Tancock’s 50m backstroke world title not coming in an Olympic event, and hence met that standard. By another measure this meet was also an improvement on Rome 2009 in that 22 swimmers made finals in China, against only 15 in Italy. But there were so many near misses and swimmers once again not reproducing their best when it mattered that it isn’t enough to simply write the meet off as an unqualified success.

Of course there were highs. The performance of Becky Adlington in particular was heartening as we head into Olympic year. The Nottingham swimmer had shown a degree of mental frailty last year and struggled on the global stage last time around so her confident showing in China was most welcome. Adlington was able shrug off a disappointing 400m freestyle heat to push herself to silver and then overcame a determined challenge from Lotte Friis in the 800m freestyle to take her first world title in her fastest time since that magnificent day in Beijing. Friis will come back stronger next year and will not have so many racing metres in her arms when she faces Adlington again, so the GB swimmer can not rest on her laurels. However, she rightly enters 2012 on a high and the decision to switch attention away from the 200m freestyle has been proven correct, even if it harms Britain’s relay prospects.

The other stars of the pool were also on the ladies team. Ellen Gandy finally made good on her potential, beating the Olympic Champion Liu Zige and almost touching out the other Chinese swimmer in the race, Jiao Liuyang, for the Gold medal. What was most impressive was that Gandy was able to reproduce a performance around her best time this year when it mattered most – so often a failing of British swimmers – to take that podium spot. The nerves of 2008 and 2009 are now banished and Gandy has installed herself as a major medal prospect for next year.

Similarly Hannah Miley also built on a successful 2010 for her to take silver over 400IM. Once again it was her impressive breaststroke quarter that made the difference but she showed real determination and grit at the end to touch out Olympic Champion Steph Rice from Australia. Rice has been recovering from shoulder surgery this year so may not yet be at her best and will be a tougher nut to crack next year. As will the USA’s Elizabeth Beisel who set the best time in textile to take gold. Beisel trains with Ryan Lochte so will no doubt come again stronger next year. Factor in former world champions Kirsty Coventry and Katinka Hosszu, both out of sorts in Shanghai, and the scale of the task facing Miley next year is immense. She will also need to swim near her best to stay in the mix – her medal winning time in Shanghai was over a second outside the world leading time she set last year, but was good enough on the day. It may not be next year.

Meanwhile Tancock’s defence of his world title over 50m backstroke was welcome, delivering as it did the only medal from the men’s team, but counts for little in the context of next year. He will take heart from having beaten French backstroke ace Camille Lacourt, but still needs to translate that speed into back end performance in the 100m event. He is competitive but need to be able to close out races if he is to repeat the podium finish in the two lap race that he secured at the world championships of 2007.

But what of the near misses? Fran Halsall notched two fourth places in the sprint freestyle, and James Goddard was agonisingly close to bronze in the 200IM. Halsall has the bigger reason to be disappointed – despite having an injury interrupted preparation following ankle surgery late last year, the Loughborough swimmer will feel she should have taken at least one medal home with her. Goddard was similarly struggling with injury, this time a shoulder niggle in the final few weeks leading up to the meet, but still had his chance for bronze in the 200IM, missing out as he did by the narrowest of margins to Lazlo Cseh. Gold and Silver next year are all but decided in favour of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, but from his performance in Shanghai, Goddard now knows he can win bronze.

Disappointing were the numbers of British swimmers who failed to progress from the heats. You can’t win a medal in the morning, but you can certainly lose one and it remains a case of learning to produce a best time in the heats for many. There is little that can be done if an athlete is ill, the fate that befell Michael Rock and Gemma Spofforth and almost took Lizzie Simmonds out of the 200m backstroke final, but many others will need to look hard at their approach to heats to make sure they give themselves the opportunity to progress to the medal races next year. Britain also needs to fill some glaring gaps in its programme – for example the ladies medley team has three-quarters of a medal winning relay, but was once again left short in the breaststroke department.

As thoughts turn to 2012, Britain should feel satisfied with their Shanghai performance, but the excellence of the few should not be allowed to paper over the cracks that were evident in the first half of the week particularly. The next time the world’s swimmers come together will be in Stratford next July and standards there will move on from those established in China. Britain’s swimmers need to move faster.