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Bill Sweetenham has already signed his new four-year contract with British Swimming. For the Australian performance director, it was tantamount to going straight to the prize-giving without taking the exams, because he should sensibly have been judged by what happens in Athens. He still may be, but it won’t affect the job (nor the pay rise) even if Britain’s performance is an unmitigated disaster.
So why did British Swimming do it? Well, ask anyone who was around in the sport four years ago, in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, and they will tell you. Those were bleak days. Paul Palmer was pretty much Britain’s solitary medal hope and he was toying with the 1,500m freestyle because he could not possibly win the 400m, his best event, against Ian Thorpe. They were days without hope, and if Sweetenham has been rewarded for anything, it is for putting the hope back into British swimming.
In Melanie Marshall and Katy Sexton, the Sweetenham system has produced two swimmers who could challenge for an Olympic title in Athens. Sexton has already put down her marker, winning the 200m backstroke at the world championships in Barcelona last summer. Asthma has not aided her Olympic preparation, but Sexton appears to thrive in adversity and needs only to be at a similar level to last summer to start favourite in the 200m.
Marshall has been the revelation of this summer. The 22-year-old has been no more than a member of the freestyle pack for the last few seasons. Under the eye of coach Ben Titley at Loughborough, Marshall has made enormous strides. Though not tall for an international swimmer – she is barely 5ft 6in – she has lifted her fitness levels and the result at the British trials in April was a world-leading mark in the 200m freestyle of 1:57.51. She will hope there is more to come in Athens.
British talent has traditionally clustered in the breaststroke events, and Darren Mew, James Gibson (100m) and Ian Edmond (200m) all harbour medal hopes, though the presence of the American Brendan Hansen and Japan’s Kosute Kitajima may temper their ambitions slightly. The 19-year-old David Davies will not beat Australia’s Grant Hackett in the 1,500m either, but could earn a minor medal.
Rebecca Cooke in the 800m freestyle; the two women’s freestyle relays; the men’s medley relay; Todd Cooper in the 100m butterfly, Steve Parry in the 200m butterfly and Gregor Tait in the 200m backstroke, should all make finals, and could even gain medals. On second thoughts; it is not hope that Sweetenham has brought to British Swimming, it is expectation.