By Craig Lord
MANCHESTER, England, March 20. THE good thing about a wildfire is that the fresh green shoots that follow tend to grow rapidly and more vigorous than the old twigs they replace.
Good then to see, at a time when retirements are spreading at the pace of a brush fire through the senior ranks, that a new generation has started to make its mark in Britain.
On the fourth of five days of the trials here, after an established name, Rebecca Cooke, led the way to become only the fourth swimmer to make the Britain team for the world championships by retaining her national title in an 800 freestyle best time of 8:28.30, the Manchester pool celebrated the arrival of a new generation, including two 14-year-olds who took gold and silver medals.
That Cooke, coached by Stephen Hill in Glasgow, raced a second faster than the time in which she took sixth place in the Olympic final in Athens last year had much to do with the presence of Keri-anne Payne, a 17-year-old who missed selection for the Games last year by a tiny margin.
Payne, who races without goggles, was invited by Bill Sweetenham, the national performance director, to accompany the Olympic team and train with Cooke "right up to the door of Athens" and has since been working harder than ever with coach Sean Kelly at Stockport Metro. In December she won the European short-course title over 400 and in Manchester converted her better form to 8:31.77 in the 800 free, just shy of the mark that she needs to race in Montreal, but the third fastest ever by a Britain behind Cooke and Sarah Hardcastle's 8:24.77 British record from 1986.
Payne, who grew up in South Africa but returned to Britain with her family three years ago, will have a second chance to qualify for the World Championships in June. She will take some lessons with her from Manchester, having lost a body length on Cooke over the first 150 meters. By the 550 mark she had edged up to Cooke's shoulder but with a wealth of experience behind her, the double Commonwealth champion of 2002 dug deep over the next 100 meters to regain decisive control of the race.
"I had a little bit in reserve so I knew I could respond when Keri-anne came back at me," said Cooke, for whom happiness was not so much a qualification time achieved but the fact that she was back at her best despite the "immense low" she felt in the wake of her performances in Athens. "It was really hard to get back in but I thought long and hard about it and came to the conclusion that I did not want Athens to be the last race of my career."
A physiology and psychology student at Glasgow University, Cooke has returned to full-time studies this year but will go part-time in the build-up to Beijing before attempting to graduate in 2009. Just as she needed the distraction of study to "keep me sane", Cooke, used to racing lonely in domestic waters, was delighted to have company from Payne. "It's much better to have someone driving you on," she said.
If Payne is one to watch, then the future promises much for 14-year-olds Jessica Dickons, Francesca Halsall and Elizabeth Simmonds. Dickons fell shy of the qualification target in the 200 butterfly but took her first national senior title in 2:11.80. She will race for Britain at the European junior championships in Budapest in July.
Dickons is coached by Graeme Antwhistle in Borough of Stockton and one of a talented group of youngsters on British Swimming's Smart Track system designed to nurture swimmers from fast youngsters to senior internationals capable of competing for medals on a world stage.
Dickons has clearly gained from attending the US Open in December and world cups in Stockholm and Berlin in January. Asked if racing rivals much older than her was a problem, she said: "No, I raced big people on the world cups, it didn't bother me, you just have to get in and do your best. My skills were good in that race, I took it out harder than before and brought it back well."
Nor did missing the Montreal target time bother her: "The point was to make the European juniors and race people as fast as me from other countries," she said.
Ellen Gandy, still 13, finished third behind Dickons, in 2:13.65 and will compete for Britain at Europe's Youth Olympic Festival. Alongside her and Dickons are fellow smart-trackers Simmonds and Halsall, who qualified for the final of the 100 freestyle. Simmonds, coached by Graham Bassi at Lincoln Vulcans, took second in the 200 individual medley in 2:18.72 before going on to clock 2:14.22 in the 200 backstroke to qualify second-fastest for a final in which Melanie Marshall threatens to shake up Britain's backstroke specialists.
Ahead of Simmonds in the medley was Stacey Tadd, coached by Andrei Vorontsov at Bath University, in 2:16.96. Just 16, she will represent Britain at the European junior championships.
Among men, Loughborough trio Liam Tancock, coached by Ben Titley, David Carry and Ross Davenport, coached by Ian Turner, impressed most. While Tancock qualified for Montreal with a British record of 25.38 in the 50 backstroke, David Carry and Ross Davenport fell just shy of the target in a fierce battle in the 200 freestyle. Carry stopped the clock at 1:48.48, to Davenport's 1:48.50. It was all good news for the development of the national 4 x 200m quartet.
In semifinals, Zoe Baker cruised to 32.40 in the 50 breaststroke but will not be able to race in the final. Baker's race was swum in stoney silence, the crowd apparently responding to the fact that the world record holder has this winter switched allegiance from Britain to New Zealand in an effort to escape Sweetenham and the policy of those who fund sport to concentrate all efforts on Olympic events.
The 50 breaststroke, for which there are world and European titles, has been treated as something of an irrelevance, Baker unable (and, some coaches say, unwilling) to convert her speed to a fast time over 100 meters.
Men: 200m freestyle: 1 D Carry (Loughborough University) 1:48.48; 2 R Davenport (Loughborough University) 1:48.50; 3 E Sinclair (Millfield) 1:51.20. 50m backstroke: 1 L Tancock (Loughborough University) 25.38 (British record); 2 M Clay (Bath University) 25.77; 3 M Loughran (Guildford City) 27.45.
Women: 800m freestyle: 1 R Cooke (City of Glasgow) 8:28.30; 2 K Payne (Stockport Metro) 8:31.77; 3 R Adlington (Nova Centurion) 8:45.38. 200m breaststroke: 1 K Balfour (City of Edinburgh) 2:28.40; 2 A Konowalik (Nova Centurion) 2:31.52; 3 S Tadd (Bath University) 2:32.82. 200m butterfly: 1 J Dickons (Borough of Stockton) 2:11.80; 2 T Dunning (City of Birmingham) 2:12.88; 3 E Gandy (Beckenham) 2:13.65. 200m medley: 1 S Tadd (Bath University) 2:16.96; 2 E Simmonds (Lincoln Vulcans) 2:18.72; 3 N Effemey (Loughborough University) 2:19.62.