Montreal: time for a rethink?

British medals were hard to come by in Montreal

The British squad went to Montreal with high expectations, despite the loss of 13 senior swimmers after last years’ Olympics. The qualification standards were the toughest yet under the Sweetenham regime, but 18 swimmers attained the standard and arrived at the meet after a reportedly solid preparation. Many of the times that Britain’s swimmers had produced at the two selection trials would have won medals and yet only four swimmers produced personal bests at a meet that yielded 3 bronze medals. So the question everyone is asking is, what went wrong?

There are a number of ways of approaching that question, but the first has to be to ask, did anything actually go wrong? The British teams of the past four years have undoubtedly become a victim of their own success, taking a best ever 8 medals in Barcelona 2003. Even allowing for a slight hiccup in Athens, which still produced two bronze medals, expectations were high leading into this meet, especially given the high rankings that many of the team enjoyed off the back of their trials performances. Therefore with so much expected from the 18 swimmers making the trip to Canada the fall was always likely to be that much harder when the medal haul peaked at three bronzes.

While it’s clear that this team didn’t live up to its potential, with the notable exception of Fukuoka and Barcelona, Britain has always struggled for medals at this competition. In the three previous championships before 2001, Britain amassed a grand total of only 3 bronze and two silver; against such a background the Montreal tally is not as bad as it might seem, just that we all thought they would do better. Sweetenham himself has said that Britain should always aim for 8 medals at global championships, maybe things need to be done differently next time to enable that standard to be attained?

So what of the preparation, are there clues as to the under par performance there? Even Bill Sweetenham was pleased with the way things had gone in the build up, quoted as saying that the final preparation camp had allowed the team to “dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s”. But that statement was couched in terms of what had gone before as Sweetenham offered his first public clue that he was not happy with some swimmer’s preparation, as he went on to say “If we don’t achieve the results we’re hoping for it won’t be down to the good work that’s been done at the holding camp.”. Subsequently it has been widely reported that the national coaching team were not happy with the length of break many swimmers took after Athens of up to two months in many cases, and again after the trials. As a stark contrast Australian press reports indicate that Jessicah Schipper, for example, who won two gold and one silver in Montreal, was back in full training only 4 days after returning from the Olympics.

A lack of preparation and background work may have done for a number of medal hopes than, but what about getting the right swimmers to Montreal in the first place? The selection process with tough qualifying times has had widespread criticism throughout Sweetenham’s time at the helm, but while Britain has been improving and winning medals, it has been hard for those critics to mount a compelling case against the approach. It was only last year with the Olympic performance that cracks started to show. For the past two major championships Britain’s trials have produced some of the fastest swimming of the year and yet the medal haul has declined as swimmers have been unable to reproduce that kind of form.

Darren Mew - Sent home after an under par showing

Which begs the inevitable question – are Britain’s swimmers having to peak too soon just to make the team? Head coach Ian Turner made a telling comment which hinted at that very problem after Darren Mew was unceremoniously sent packing from Montreal. “We are well aware that we are funding people who cannot do anything other than make the qualifying time and make a good world ranking from a domestic meet” Turner said “But they are not transferring the result from the trials into an international meet”. Which is exactly the nub of the issue, but has the coaching staff got it the wrong way round? Turner’s approach seems to be to seek out and fund swimmers who are able to translate their domestic form to the world stage, but could the current crop perform better if managed better and allowed to aim for a single peak at the major meet of the year?

While a return to the pre-selection policy of the previous regime is probably not a good idea, to the casual observer the requirement for swimmers to swim way beyond their lifetime bests just to make the team and then to have to repeat the feat only weeks later can seem ridiculous. That argument is best countered by pointing out that Britain’s three medals in Montreal were won by swimmers who have emerged under the current system and who were able to reproduce performances either beyond or near their best when it mattered. Turner is clearly looking for the next Tancock, Davies and McClatchey to bolster the squad.

The issues surrounding the British team’s; performance are far from clear and whatever happened to individuals only the swimmers and their coaches will ever really know. nonetheless It seems that despite this setback there will be no re-evaluation of the strategy and the next generation will need to learn to deal with the rigours of tough selection and the need to swim year round if they want to be successful on the international stage. It is only to be hoped that the next David Davies is strong enough to deal with such a scenario and doesn’t get lost to the sport forever at the foot of a seemingly insurmountable selection mountain.