BY Kevin Milak
SWANSEA, Great Britain, May 30. ALMOST two weeks ago, British distance star Graeme Smith was senselessly attacked and beaten in his hometown of Manchester by a gang of thugs.
As a result, the World Championship silver medalist has been forced to pull out of a meeting in Swansea, Wales, this weekend as he continues to recover from the attack, which left the distance swimmer needing hospital treatment.
Smith, 27, the British mile record-holder (14:58.94 from the World Championships in Fukuoka, ninth all-time performer and fourth among active swimmers) is also his country's leading male hope for a medal at Barcelona in any freestyle race. Smith intended to join Britain's elite swimmers in Swansea for the second of three meets designed to increase the athletes' workloads before resting for this summer's World Championships, but has had to withdraw to aid his recovery.
Smith was out for a bite to eat with friends in Manchester, where he lives, when he was set upon by a gang earlier this month as he was returning to his car. The gang attacked him from behind, dragged him to the ground and launched a horrifying attack on the native Scotsman as he laid there on the ground. With the World Championships in Barcelona less than two months away, the Stockport Metro swimmer feared the worst but now considers himself lucky the damage he received wasn't more serious, or permanent.
"It wasn't a nice experience having three guys jumping on you, forcing you to the floor and then kicking you while you're down," said Smith. "I'd been out for a meal with friends and was walking on my own when I was jumped by these lads. I had no idea who it was and why they were doing it. While I was being kicked on the floor I even asked them what they wanted and they just said: 'Nothing.'
"I'm healing well now but the left side of my ribs still hurts quite a lot. I had a lot of internal bruising around my kidneys and it's pretty painful. I can't go as fast as I would like and turning is a real problem, but I'm hoping that by the start of next week I'll be 100% again.
"I went into a hospital that night and came out again on Monday morning (May 19). They kept me in as they were concerned about my liver and kidneys and did quite a few tests on me. I'm lucky it's just pain, really, and it's nothing too serious. Nothing is broken and it could have been a lot worse if you look at it like that."
Despite his horrific experience, Smith is trying to remain positive and focused with the World Championships just over six weeks away.
"I'm feeling a lot better now. I had two to three days out of the water and I've been back in for a week now. At first I couldn't do the sort of training I would have liked, but I'm trying to remain positive and am hoping the enforced break may be good for me when it comes to the World Championships in July," Smith added.
His decision to withdraw from the Grand Prix meet in Swansea is not surprising due to the trauma of the past two weeks. But it still comes as a disappointment to British Swimming and its many fans who were looking forward to seeing Smith face exciting Welsh prospect David Davies over the distance events. Smith and Davies have spent the past week at a special distance orientated camp in Loughborough, Leicestershire, where world-renowned coach Bob Trefene of Australia put them through their paces in readiness for Barcelona.
"It was great to work with Bob," said Smith. "He has worked with the biggest names in Australian distance swimming such as Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett, and he is one of the main reasons why that nation has won every major 1500 title since 1991.
"To be able to add his knowledge to what we've been doing is fantastic. He's given us a different approach to training sets and when you see his methods you realize just why Hackett can swim the 1500 in world-record times."
Smith, who is happy to feel the pressure applied by a younger talent, is expecting great things of Davies and sees them both pushing each other in the pursuit of success at the World Championships and the Athens 2004 Olympics.
"It's great training with David. For a long time I have been on my own nationally, but now David's on the scene all that is changing. It's 50/50 between us. At the nationals I won all distance events but it was so close and it's going to get a lot closer as we head towards the Olympics next year.
"I’ll be back," Smith said with a smile, adding: "Tell Mr. Hackett not to start polishing that gold medal quite yet."
For the rest of the British contingent working towards Barcelona it will be business as usual this weekend. However, the screw is tightening all of the time and in Swansea the swimmers will be expected to go even faster than the stage one meet earlier this month in Bath.
In order to make a final, swimmers in all events will have to swim within 2% of their personal best times in the heats. There will be no exceptions to this rule as National Performance Director Bill Sweetenham ups the tempo of his swimmers as they head towards Barcelona where the rest of the world awaits.