By Craig Lord
NORWICH, England. Aug. 10. THE unprecedented progress in British swimming continued apace at the National Short Course championships in Norwich last night as the 4x200m freestyle quartet, who won a controversial world title in Japan last month, shattered the world short-course record in 7:47.14.
The efforts of Karen Legg (1:57.18), Janine Belton (1:58.52), Nicola Jackson (1:55.51) and Karen Pickering (1:55.86) brought the finals session to a blistering climax of thumping music and cheering fit to raise the roof of the Bernard Matthews pool.
Having become the first British women ever to win a world long-course title in Fukuoka, Japan, last month, the quartet raced against the clock to wipe 1.97sec off the global standard that had been held by three of them (Belton replaced Clare Huddard) since April last year, when they became world short course champions.
In a dramatic act played out to reinforce their rivalry with Australia, Legg, Belton and Jackson leapt into the pool to join Pickering in celebration of their achievement: it was by leaping in at the end of their race in Fukuoka before others had finished racing in the 4x200m relay that Australia forfeited a gold medal, while the United States were also disqualified, for a premature takeover, giving Great Britain the crown.
There was no other team to interfere with last night, the race a time trial set up by absent performance director, Bill Sweetenham, the result one that helped to produce an astonishing statistic: since July 22, British swimmers have established two world, six European, eight Commonwealth and 32 British records.
Having traveled for 31 hours from Perth, Western Australia to arrive in Norwich on Wednesday night with others from the Great Britain team, Pickering, 29, said that the quartet had imagined that fatigue would prevent them from being at their best. Having earlier won the 100m freestyle title for the fifth time since 1988 ahead of three of those who joined her in the relay, Pickering said: "It was really nerve-racking. We were all feeling really tired and we didn't want to let anyone down. We didn't come into these championships fresh but we're on such a high … it just shows that us Brits are really tough – we can get up and do it."
Given the pressure-cooker atmosphere in Norwich, it came as no surprise to hear from Legg, 23, Jackson, 17, and Belton, 21, that they had felt more nervous than they had in Fukuoka. With cheering driven to fever pitch by the brilliant commentary of Hugh Porter, a former world cycling champion, the sound of the crowd spurred the swimmers on. "You can usually only see the crowd but I could hear them every time I breathed – it was amazing," said Jackson, from Derwentside.
The last world record to be established by British women in Britain was the 4x100m medley quartet of Judy Grinham, Anita Lonsborough (who celebrated her 60th birthday in Norwich yesterday), Christine Gosden and Diana Wilkinson at the Empire Games in Cardiff in 1998. The last to be established in England was over 200m backstroke by Phyllis Harding at Wallasey in 1932.
Such was the magnitude of the relay's achievement that those of others were overshadowed. On any other day, Rebecca Cooke, 18, would have been the brightest star, with a Commonwealth record of 8:21.47 in the 800m freestyle. The Commonwealth mark had stood 0.36sec slower since 1993 to Australia's Hayley Lewis, a former world champion and Olympic silver and bronze medal winner, while the British standard had stood 2.49sec slower since 1993 to Sarah Hardcastle, also a former world champion and Olympic silver and bronze medal winner.
British records also fell to Robin Francis, with 4:13.67 in the men's 400m medley, and Rosalind Brett with 26.79sec over the women's 50m butterfly, who added their names to the Great Britain team bound for the European Short Course Championships in Antwerp in December.
Neil Willey, who set a British record of 24.55sec over 50m backstroke, has opted not to race in Antwerp should he gain selection, his focus instead on the World Short Course Championships in Moscow and the Commonwealth Games in Manchester next year.