By Craig Lord
WITH retirements spreading through British Swimming at brush-fire pace and doubt hanging heavy in the air over whether world champions will even qualify to defend their crowns in the wake of Olympic disappointments, the only thing certain over the next five days of the British Trials is that the sport has reached a watershed.
Graeme Smith and Stephen Parry, Olympic medal winners, Alison Sheppard, Karen Legg and Adrian Turner are just some of those to have retired. Other national-team members, such as Ian Edmond and Georgina Lee, are recovering from injury and it remains to be seen whether they will make it back to the water.
The British Championships (March 16-20) double as the first of two selection events for the World Championships in Montreal in July. Beyond the retired and the injured, those who survived the Athens fallout will do battle with a new generation keen to dent senior pride as they fight for places not only on the squad for Montreal but for the European junior championships and European Youth Olympic Festival, both in July.
Katy Sexton – who has put her disappointing performance in Athens down to overtraining – and James Gibson, world champions in 2003, both took time to get back into the water after the Games and may feel the pinch in Manchester.
Sexton will approach the trials under a new regime, with her coach Chris Nesbit having left the Portsmouth Northsea club at the end of last year. Shortlisted with three others, Nesbit runs Britain's offshore center on the Australian Gold Coast.
Beyond the toughest qualifying times ever requiring British records to be set in 12 out of the 32 individual events for selection, Sexton faces a three-pronged attack from Loughborough that may threaten her hopes of retaining the world 200 backstroke crown in July. Qualifying times must be equivalent to 10th fastest in the world in Olympic events and sixth fastest in non-Olympic events
Sexton's rivals, Sarah Price and Karen Lee, are joined by Melanie Marshall, who rocketed to the helm of the world rankings in the 200 freestyle last year, before failing to make the Olympic final. But, Marshall certainly has the speed and stamina to challenge the status quo in the backstroke.
And then there's 14-year-old Elizabeth Simmonds, who has gone 2:12 in the 200 back. Simmonds was among a select group of youngsters who spent a month in Mexico recently with Bill Sweetenham, the performance director.
Simmonds was among a group of 13 junior girls to attend a three-week training camp as part of British Swimming's Smart Track system, designed to catch talent early, nurture it and provide continuous support and education for home coaches on the journey to senior international waters.
David Davies, coached by Dave Haller in Cardiff, is keen to show an improvement in speed in the 400 free and hopes it will transform a bronze medal over 1,500 meters in Athens into a performance capable of
challenging world champion Grant Hackett this summer.
Davies will have company over 400 meters from members of a 4 x 200 free relay squad that intends to step up from an excrutiating fourth place in Athens. Included in that group are David Carry and Ross Davenport. They will race without Simon Burnett, the Olympic finalist in the 200 free who is based in Arizona and is exempt from the trials. He must instead race fast at the NCAA Championships.
Tight races are expected between Stockport's James Goddard, fourth in Athens in the 200 backstroke, and Gregor Tait, Davies's new training partner. Meanwhile, breaststroke specialists James Gibson, world champion over 50 meters, Darren Mew and Chris Cook will renew their rivalry.
In the distance freestyle events, Glasgow's Rebecca Cooke, Commonwealth champion and Olympic finalist over 400 and 800 meters, may find herself in fast new company. The challenge will come in the form of Stockport's Kerri Ann-Payne, who won her first international title, over 400 meters, at the European short-course championships in December.
First place inside the selection time will book a ticket to Montreal, while the second berth in each event will be left open until the third of three test events in May and June that will act as a last-chance saloon for qualification. That's good news for Mark Foster, the world silver medal winner who missed the Olympics after failing to meet the standard of 22.46 at trials last year and complained that he is only at his sprinting best come summer after a spring build-up.
Although he has two shots at it this time, his target time, courtesy of the fastest 50-meters freestyle final in history last year, is a step up, at 22.18. No time, no World Championships. Foster, 34, was among those
to criticize British swimmers and Sweetenham for their "failure" in Athens.
Spectacular progress in the first three years of Sweetenham's tenure in Britain led to high expectations in Athens. After the famine of Sydney, two Athens bronze medals, three near misses and the greatest number of Olympic finalists Britain has ever had in the pool left many hungry for what Parry described as "the results we truly feel we deserved."