Swimming World Champs. What went wrong for the Brits in Barca?

Fran Halsall: The only British medallist in the pool in Barcelona with a bronze in the 50m Freestyle

Athletics, sailing, cycling – you name it at London 2012 we won it. Since then, there have been several success stories too with victories at Wimbledon, in the Tour de France and The Ashes (OK Chris Froome is really Kenyan, critics argue, and weather played a small part in our Ashes victory but, even so!)  There’s just one exception where really we have underperformed in recent years and that’s swimming.

British Swimming's new Head Coach, Bill Furniss

London 2012 was, without putting too fine a point on it, a disaster for British swimmers. Sure the sport kicked off the Olympics and it’s fair to say that there was a fair deal of nervousness in the camp as a result. Also appointing Australian Performance Director Michael Scott who split his time between Australia and Britain wasn’t the smartest of moves for the sport either. So when Bill Furniss, the former coach of our most successful swimmer in recent times Rebecca Adlington, stepped in as the new Head Coach for British Swimming, it was hoped that he could turn things around pretty darned quickly.

Repeat of London 2012

Yet the World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona which finished at the weekend were virtually a carbon copy of our London 2012 Olympic debacle. Just one bronze medal which came on the final night for Fran Halsall in the 50m Freestyle (Gary Hunt also got a silver in the High Diving). If there was a trophy for the nation winning the most fourth places then we would have probably have got it, but unfortunately there wasn’t. Instead we had to settle for 23rd place, just behind the mighty Poland and the Ukraine. More worrying is that swimmers who performed well in the heats often recorded slower times in their finals and many seemed to have peaked over a month ago during the National Championships.

In race after race I watched in Barcelona, the British swimmers seemed to start well and fade badly during the races while relatively experienced swimmers like Michael Jamieson (our biggest achiever at London 2012 with a silver in the 200m Breaststroke) blamed an ongoing bicep injury for his failure to medal. In which case, I would ask why did he even go to Barcelona if he was injured when in other sports athletes like Jessica Ennis-Hill wisely pull out of the World Champs because of injury. Even more galling was that other nations who performed equally dismally at the Olympics, most notably the Australians, seem to have bounced back, winning 14 medals in total including James Magnussen in the prestigious Men’s 100m Freestyle Final.

Six golds for medal winning Missy

Predictably, the Americans showed too that they can fill the gap left by the mighty Michael Phelps. Missy Franklin was undoubtedly the star of the show in Barcelona with the 6ft 1, Size 13 feet teenager scooping six golds. No wonder she never stops smiling. But she wasn’t the only one. Another US teenager Katie Ledecky – diminutive in comparison – also scooped two Golds and two World Records in the 800m and 1500m Freestyle – grabbing the 800m world record from our very own Rebecca Adlington in the process (many commentators think she could even go faster).

So where does this leave British Swimming, its funding cut since the Olympics fiasco? Certainly in the doldrums, but not quite on life support yet. Many people point to the lack of investment in British Swimming at ‘grass roots’ level. And they certainly have a point. We still have less 50m pools in the whole of Britain than Paris and according to a recent survey by the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) 50 per cent of kids leave Primary School unable to swim more than 25m.

Neither of these stats bode well for the future and yet I think there is much more to it than this.  In the US most college competitions take place in 25 yard pools which perhaps explains why so many of them are so good at their turns – a key ingredient for success at international level. Swimmers like Ryan Lochte, who seems to have spent more time making reality TV programmes than training recently, are great at turns too – far better than our swimmers, it seems – and can, as a result, win medals even when they are not swimming at their absolute peak. Americans also love to compete and it would appear are far used to the competition environment than our swimmers who often ‘choke’ on the bigger stage.

Look to the future

But there are some positives out of all this too. Bill Furniss is clearly looking to Rio 2016 and as a result picked a very young and inexperienced squad. It was also a very small squad, perhaps with one eye on the reduced budget, which obviously reduced our chances of success too. Big established names like Liam Tancock were omitted  even though he qualified for the 50 back (a non Olympic event) while younger swimmers, many of whom hadn’t been to a World Championships before, were included.

Bill Furniss isn’t stupid and he knows that swimmers, especially female swimmers, are getting younger with Katie Ledecky, Ye Shiwen, Missy Franklin and Lithuanian breaststroker Ruta Meilutyte all still in their teens (interestingly Meilutyte has achieved all of her success since moving her training to Plymouth Leander swimming club). Hence the decision to include the likes of teenagers like Lauren Quigley and Sioban-Marie Connor both of whom made the finals in their respective events.

But for me the stand out British performance of the Championships came from 17 year old James Guy who confounded expectations, finishing 5th in the 400m Freestyle behind the superb Sun Yang, despite being a late replacement for the injured Dan Fogg. The future for Guy looks really promising. Let’s hope some of the other swimmers can start to get Britain back to its winning ways in the pool in time for Rio 2016. Otherwise questions really will be asked.