Preview of European Junior Championships

Feature by Thomas Willdridge, Swimming World European correspondent

LONDON, England, July 12. EUROPE's most talented young swimmers will compete in Helsinki at the European Junior Swimming Championships from July 14-18. For most of the swimmers involved, it will represent the first opportunity to test themselves against a high quality international field, whilst for a select few it will be used as a tune-up for the upcoming European Senior Championships. The long course meter competition is open to boys born in 1992 and 1993 (17 & 18 years) and girls born in 1994 and 1995 (15 & 16 years).

For those passionate about European swimming, the European Junior Championships have always served two important purposes. The first is to act as a barometer looking ahead to give an indication of the strengths of the various European swimming nations in the upcoming years. The second is to shine a light on the future stars of both European and World swimming.

One of the more surprising stories in the swimming world this year has been the emergence of Yannick Agnel as a legitimate challenger to Paul Biedermann and Michael Phelps in the 200m Freestyle. However, to a certain section of European swimming this did not come as a surprise. Those who followed the European Junior Championships have known all about Agnel and his prodigious talent for a year. Agnel swept to victory at last year's European Junior Championships in the 200m Freestyle with a European Junior record of 1:47.02.

The star attractions this year include the return of Agnel (FRA) as well as Silke Lippok (GER) and Anton Lobanov (RUS) who are all positioned towards the top of the 2010 world rankings. Other top 50 ranked swimmers in the world worth watching in Helsinki include, on the men's side, Jasper Aerents (BEL) in the 50m Free, Yakov Toumarkin (ISR) and Peter Bernek (HUN) in the 100m and 200m Back, Christian vom Lehn (GER) in the 200m Breast, Marcin Cieslak (POL) in the 100m and 200m Fly and Ieuan Lloyd (GBR) in the 200m IM.

On the women's side look out for Elisa Thimm (GER) in the 400m Free, Henrietta Stenkvist (SWE) in the 100m and 200m Back, Ana Pinho Rodrigues (POR) in the 50m Breast, Marina Garcia (ESP) in the 100m and 200m Breast, Rachael Kelly (GBR) in the 100m Fly and Judit Ignacio (ESP) in the 100m and 200m Fly.

If the importance placed on this junior competition seems excessive then one only needs to look at some of the previous winners during the last 10 years of this competition. The list of former European Junior winners includes Olympic Champions (Rebecca Adlington, Laure Manaudou, Diana Mocanu), World Champions (Paul Biedermann, Daniel Gyurta, Yulia Efimova, Katinka Hosszu, Gemma Spofforth, Mateusz Sawrymowicz, Laszlo Cseh, Milorad Cavic, Hanna-Maria Seppala) and World Record Holders (Anastasia Zueva, Rafael Munoz Perez, Aschwin Wildeboer Faber, Liam Tancock).

The vast majority of European medalists on the International stage have either won or medaled at the European Junior Champs beforehand. Whilst winning a medal at European Juniors does not guarantee future success, you can pick out swimmers from each of the last 10 years that have all gone on to achieve success at senior international level. For some, success follows in a matter of months.

In 2000, Mocanu was a three-time winner at European Juniors before winning two Gold medals at the Sydney Olympics. For others the jump to senior honors can take years.

Spofforth won the European Juniors in 2003 and would wait 6 years before breaking the world record and winning Gold at last year's World Championships in Rome.

Make a note of the winners and medalists this year in Helsinki. Rather than being surprised at the emergence of a new European star over the next few years you will be able to track their progress from juniors to the senior ranks. Chances are that you will be seeing some of the medalists in Helsinki on the podium again in London 2012 or Rio 2016.