By Craig Lord
BATH, England, May 12. MARK FOSTER’S days as a full member of the Great Britain team may be numbered after he failed to show for 50 metres freestyle at the first of three team performance tests in Bath on Sunday.
Selectors are yet to name the squad for the World Championships in July and though Foster has qualified for the 50 metres butterfly, he has yet to meet the required standard – based on the 12th fastest time in the world in 2002 – over 50 metres freestyle, his main event.
The fastest man in water by virtue of the fact he is world short-course record holder over 50m freestyle, Foster failed to take his place on the blocks for the semifinals of the 50 metres freestyle at his home Bath University pool, but had failed to provide the head coach there, Ian Turner, or local organisers, any explanation for his absence.
Bill Sweetenham, the national performance director, said that Foster, who turns 33 today, had informed him that he had a birthday party to attend. That message had not filtered through to his coaches and teammates in Bath, while Sweetenham has already stated publicly that he has "no time to waste" on Foster or anyone who is not "signed up to what we need to do to achieve podium success in Athens."
Sweetenham recognises that Foster remains in the sport primarily for the winter short-course season, during which he can earn a decent living. However, when it comes to the more important summer events and playing a full role on the national team, Foster finds himself increasingly ostracised.
The purpose of the Bath event was to force British swimmers into a habit of swimming fast in heats and getting at least one percent quicker from heats to semifinals and then finals. The exercise is a rehearsal for the big stage – world championships in Barcelona this July and Olympic Games next summer in Athens.
Foster never needs to race hard to qualify for finals in a domestic event, such is the gap between him and other sprinters. However, that mean that he seldomly rehearses the conditions he will face in Barcelona and Athens. His best long-course result over 50m freestyle remains a sixth place at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
There was no official comment yesterday on what penalty Foster may face. Any action against him is likely to be restricted to reinforcing his isolation from the rest of the national team by simply not inviting him to attend group activities, meetings – he missed Sunday's 7am gathering of the Britain squad – team-building exercises and training camps.
In March, Foster qualified for the World Championships, to be held in Barcelona, over 50 metres butterfly but missed the qualification standard in his main event, the freestyle sprint. According to the selection policy, "ALL selected team members will be expected to attend ALL programmed training camps (where selected), competitions, meetings and activities organised between the trials and the championships."
All those selected were expected to attend at least two of the three performance tests, so Foster has a chance to make amends, in Swansea at the end of the month and again in Glasgow in late June.
Ian Turner, the Bath head coach, lamented that his swimmer had "yet again" detracted from the good work being done by the majority who had signed up to Sweetenham’s revolution. "Organisers, the swimmers, spectators and coaches are all bitterly disappointed that he has failed to show" was the official statement.
Turner is much more interested in what he called "the future of the sport," the next generation of swimmers who have signed up fully to Sweetenham's revolution. Swimmers such as Ross Davenport, whose progress in middle distance freestyle at the weekend was of a degree that reflects the breakneck pace of change in the sport being driven by the performance director.
Foster is spending less time training at Bath these days and Turner has little to do with his programme. The sprinter recently spent 10 days training in Barcelona. He often sets his own training programmes and takes coaching advice from the likes of his close friend Colin Jackson, the retired hurdler. Jackson is unlikely to have taken hurdling tips from Foster during his successful athletics career.
Foster was unavailable for comment on Sunday.
The 50 metres final in Bath was won by Chris Cozens, a fast-improving sprinter from Loughborough University, in 23.75sec. Cozens was one of a number of Loughborough swimmers, including Melanie Marshall and James Gibson, who delivered on Sweetenham’s demands that they race close to their best, even when in heavy training.
In a new phase of his revolution, Sweetenham will take to the poolside at Loughborough this week to coach the squad directly and said: "It is essential for everyone to move in the same direction, share the same faith. I’ve asked them to do things, such as swim within 3 per cent of their best times — it’s got to be done under sufferance. I’ve asked them to do it. Now I’m forcing them to do it."
Among those who needed little forcing at the weekend were Sarah Price, of Barnet Copthall, who put in solid performances over 50 and 200m backstroke before missing the 100m race against rival Katy Sexton, of Portsmouth, because of a minor "niggle" in her shoulder.
The second in the series of three performance test events will take place in Swansea at the end of the month, when swimmers will be asked to race within 2 per cent of their best times to qualify for finals in races of 200 metres and more, and where sprinters must do the same in order to progress to the "skins" head-to-head stages of competition.
The third event will be the Scottish Championships in Glasgow in late June, the last opportunity for swimmers to qualify for the world championships. So far, 17 of the 34 individual places have been taken.