Numbers cut adds jeopardy on the road to Barcelona

It’s an itch that’s been waiting to be scratched. We’ve watched impatiently as other countries pick their squads but thanks to the change in timing of Britain’s World Championship trials we’ve had to wait longer than usual to find out who will make the GB plane to Barcelona.

The shift to trials just a few weeks ahead of the targeted meet was a consequence of the post Olympic review which recommended the American system of late selection – so late in fact that the British meet starts after its US counterpart. It’s not clear if they were intended to be so close to Barcelona with rumours abounding that the preferred date was in fact earlier. Issues over venue availability supposedly presented organisers with something of a fait accompli and also forced the rescheduling of the Scottish Nationals.

The same post Olympic review also promised clearer cut selection policies in the wake of the hugely complicated procedure that picked the London team. And on the face of it the criteria are fairly straightforward with a single trials meet, and a single set of qualifying times – be in the top 2 and make the qualifying time, set around number 20 in the 2012 world rankings, and you can start packing your Spanish phrase book with your goggles.

But it’s not as simple as it first appears. in the wake of funding cuts the team size was limited to 35 places and while the main selection policy was a mere two pages, a second set of conditions also applied. These explained how numbers would be regulated in the event that more than 35 swimmers qualified.

However, the criteria was simply that “selections for the final make-up of the team will be determined by the National Performance Director in his complete discretion” based on “factors such as a swimmer’s current and past performance, their rate of progression and their Olympic medal potential for 2016.” In other words just about any selection could be justified on some grounds. Compare that to the 14 page American selection policy which goes into intricate detail about how the team would be selected in similar circumstances.

The uncertainty engendered by this was heightened further when the team size was cut again to a maximum of 30 by new National Performance heads Chris Spice and Bill Furniss, neither of whom were in post when the policy was originally published.

While there’s no suggestion that anything inappropriate will happen in the event if discretionary selections, it’s probable that the opaque nature of such decisions will lead to disquiet. British Swimming would certainly seem to be expecting some difficulty over selection, moving swiftly to highlight the fast track appeals process that will apply to the team. And outwardly it does seem likely that the process will be used, but is it really likely to be needed?

If the team were selected on 2012 rankings then a maximum of 27 swimmers would be selected for individual events. The policy states that Olympic events will be prioritised so knocking out those only qualified in form 50s and the reverse gender distance events reduces this to around 25. Numbers could then be swelled by relay swimmers predominantly on the female side which might take the number over 30, but it will be interesting to see if individual swims are prioritised over relay squads in that event. Certainly it would seem unlikely that the men’s 4×100 freestyle will make the required qualifying standard, which would require an average time of around 48.9 from the four members allowing for takeovers, while the 4×200 is not a formality, although it should qualify.

The short trials, which take place over 5 days as opposed to the 8 that the event in Barcelona will take, could also have an impact on numbers. Francesca Halsall tweeted recently that her worlds programme may be dictated as much by the number of races she would need to swim in a short period at trials as her preparation; if she took on 50m and 100m of both fly and freestyle that would mean 12 races in 5 days to qualify a full house. Since the semis and finals of the 50s are in the same session, that could mean 3 races in one evening quite apart from the clash between the 100 freestyle semis and 100 fly final. It’s expected that she will swim both 50s and probably the 100 free, but events in Sheffield may prove otherwise. Whether the programme will affect others’ event selections remains to be seen.

But to the swimming itself and one name that stands out is that of Siobhan-Marie O’Connor. There is every possibility that this year could see her coming of age on the international scene following two impressive up-and-coming seasons that have demonstrated her temperament and versatility. It seems increasingly likely that Hannah Miley will finally be dethroned in the 200IM, O’Connor having beaten her in the British Gas International Meet in March, and there is a real possibility that she won’t make the team in the shorter of the medleys, with Sophie Allen who contested the event in London, and Sophie Smith also snapping at her heels. Miley though remains all but peerless in the 400IM, and it will be intriguing to see if she can add further events to her Barcelona programme, having pursued her customary monstrous race schedules at almost every meet since London.

Meanwhile retirements following the Olympics mean opportunities for a host of new faces to make the world championship team. For example, no Gemma Spofforth or Steph Proud in the women’s backstroke events means a chance for the likes of Lauren Quigley and Jessica Fullalove to transition to the senior ranks, but don’t expect Lizzie Simmonds and Georgia Davies to let them have it easy. The senior duo will need to be on their mettle however and outside the short medley, the backstroke events will be the most fascinating on the women’s side.

On the men’s side the battle in the breaststroke looks to be the highlight, with Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson facing off against fellow Scot Craig Benson and his Bath training partner Andrew Willis. Stirling’s Ross Murdoch is the coming man though, having carved huge chunks off his personal bests this year and could yet crash the party. A space has also opened up in the 400IM with Joe Roebuck retiring from that event, leaving the door open for multiple European Junior Champion Matthew Johnson, or a comeback for Thomas Haffield, or perhaps Scotland’s Dan Wallace who has been having a whale of a season over on the NCAA circuit.

Whatever the outcome in the waters of Ponds Forge, or indeed in the appeal jury’s room, it’s certain that the team will enter the unknown as they seek to hold their tapers or taper again to be ready to race in Barcelona. By all accounts they will go in good sprits, with coaches up and down the country commenting on the positive vibe that the new management team have instilled. Ten years ago Britain came away from the Catalan capital with a then record of 8 medals. In this post Olympic year a repeat would be an unexpected, tremendous, performance, but the potential is there. If the changes to the qualification system and the approach of the new NPD have the desired effect then who knows what could be achieved.