By Craig Lord
BATH, England, May 12. A visit to Bath University's pool at the weekend was a little like stumbling into Picasso's studio as the artist struggled to explain a shambol of shapes to a class catering for geniuses, dunces and all shades in between.
Judging by choices made, times recorded and targets missed at the first of three performance test events for the elite of swimming as they build up to the world championships in Barcelona in July, this was clearly a work in progress, the masterpiece some way off. Amid the apparent mayhem of a race schedule turned on its head and uncertainty about what exactly was being demanded of swimmers by Bill Sweetenham, the performance director, it was clear that some had got it, some had got it but could not deliver, while others had missed the point altogether.
The first test event was, after not a little debate, relatively simple: no one should rest from heavy training, all those racing 200m or more had to race within 3 per cent of their best times to progress to semifinals and finals, while places in sprint finals were reduced from the standard eight to four. Things will get tougher still in Swansea at the end of the month, when the percentage screw will be tightened to 2 per cent, even for the sprinters, who will only qualify for the "skins" head-to-head challenges if they meet Sweetenham's target.
Sweetenham has driven the most rapid and widespread cultural and intellectual revolution ever seen in the British pool, those changes essential, he says, if Britain is going to win medals in Athens next year and beyond. The mission is not without risk. "I've gone against my philosophy, which says that you should never make people chage more than 15 per cent of their programme in a year. We've broken the rules of change and changed everything – and we've got away with it."
By that, he means that so far, most coaches and swimmers have ridden his wave and managed to stay on the board.
"It's a balancing act," said Sweetenham. "If you push too hard you'll get a rebellion, but if you don't push hard enough you go back to 1912. In Sydney in 2000, Britain had just four individual finalists, one relay and only 13 per cent of swimmers managed best times because they were simply not capable of racing faster in heats – no finals, no best times, no medals."
Those old habits are being left behind, and events such as Bath at the weekend are designed as dress rehearsals of a new habit, a wining habit. "We have a group of athletes now who can stand in the ready room, look their rivals in the eye and say 'I'm here to beat you, you're not here to beat me'," said Sweetenham.
At the weekend, Stephen Parry and Ian Edmond were among those who failed to make the grade on the Friday night and therefore missed the finals of their main events in Barcelona, namely the 200m butterfly and the 200m breaststroke. On the second day, there were no casualties among those already selected for Barcelona.
Among the best clashes of the weekend were those between James Gibson, of Loughborough University, and Darren Mew, of the University of Bath, whose constant rivalry over 50 and 100 metres breaststroke is producing the kind of toughness that will be necessary to win medals in Barcelona and Athens.
Gibson came out on top of both tests, taking the 50 metres in 28.28sec, to Mew's 28.37sec, with City of Newcastle's Chris Cook third in 29.39sec, and the 100m in an impressive 1min 01.88sec, to Mew's 1.02.45, with Cook third in 1:04.29.
With only the clock as rival, Sarah Price, of Barnet Copthall, out in solid performances over 50m – 29.85sec – and 200m – 2:13.58 – backstroke, while Melanie Marshall, of Loughborough University, and Karen Legg, of Ferndown, enjoyed a healthy rivaly in the freestyle events, Marshall getting the touch in both the 100 and 200 metres – 56.18sec and 2mins 01.87sec.
For distance freestyle medal hopes Graeme Smith, of Stockport Metro, and Rebecca Cooke, of Glasgow, the weekend was a pure training exercise that told them what they already knew – all is well at this stage but don't expect heart-stopping performances until the big moment. Smith clocked 3mins 58.70sec over 400m freestyle, pressed by much-improved Ross Davenport, of University of Bath, while Cooke clocked 4mins 17.54sec over 400m and and 8mins 47.19sec over 800m.
100m: C Cozens (Loughborough University) 51.04.
400m: G Smith (Stockport Metro) 3:58.70.
100m: J Goddard (Stockpot Metro) 57.46.
50m: J Gibson (Loughborough University) 28.28.
50m: M Foster (Bath University) 24.91.
200m: R Francis (Bathy University) 2:04.31.
G Tait (City of Edinburgh) 4:29.40.
50m: K Legg (Ferndown) 26.85.
200m: M Marshall (Loughborough University) 2:01.87. 800m: R Cooke (City of Glasgow) 8:47.19.
50m: Price 29.85.
200m: Price 2:13.58.
100m: K Balfour (City of Edinburgh) 1:11.06.
100m: A Savage (Ferndown) 1:03.74.
200m: H Mackenzie (City of Cardiff) 2:21.66.
50m: C Cozens (Loughborough University) 23.75.
200m: R Davenport (Bath University) 1:53.62.
1,500m: A Bircher (Bath University) 15:48.40.
50m: M Clay (Bayth) 27.25.
200m: G Tait (City of Edinburgh) 2:02.10.
100m: J Gibson (Loughborough University) 1:01.88.
100m: T Cooper (Stirling) 54.37.
200m: R Francis (Bath University) 2:03.54.
100m: M Marshall (Loughborough University) 56.18. 400m: R Cooke (Glasgow) 4:17.54.
100m: K Sexton (Portsmouth Northsea) 1:03.98.
50m: K Balfour (Edinburgh) 32.92.
200m: Balfour 2:33.43.
50m: A Savage (Ferndown) 28.38.
200m: N Brown (Borough of Southend) 2:22.63.
400m: Brown 5:04.78.