Most great sporting talent factories start with a pioneering figure who lights the way. In British swimming, that is Adam Peaty
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There was still a quarter of the race to go but, once Duncan Scott dived into the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre with a clear lead, the reaction of James Guy told you plenty about the searing confidence just now of the Great Britain swimming team. “I had already started crying,” said Guy. “I was just sat down there thinking, ‘Game over, we’re going to win this…dreams do come true’. He wasn’t letting anyone past him – he’s Duncan Scott.”
It is worth remembering that the ‘anyone’ was the very best that nations like the United States, Australia, Russia, Italy, Germany and Brazil had to offer. And that we were talking about an event which the United States have traditionally dominated.
The Australian swimmers later summed it up – “we were riding the surf of the Brits” – and, after individual golds already for Adam Peaty and Tom Dean, these Olympics are shaping up into the best swimming performance in Great Britain’s history. The gold-medal haul from Rio de Janeiro has already been trebled, leaving only the London Games in 1908 – where British athletes won four gold medals in a 100m outdoor pool next to the track at White City – as the remaining benchmark. So what changed?
Performance hubs and Lottery funding
There is no escaping a correlation between funding and sporting excellence but the 25 years post Atlanta, which signalled the start of a new era of athlete backing, stand as a stark reminder that you need rather more than full-time athletes and coaches. Especially in sports like swimming and athletics, where the global reach, competition and strength of the American college system are so significant. Most sports face considerable internal debate about the respective benefits of a central base – as was the model of British Cycling – or more of a fluid system which allows athletes to work with autonomy alongside individual coaches all around the world. Swimming has evolved into something of a hybrid, with national training centres in Bath and Loughborough, as well as high performance centres in Stirling and Swansea. Both national centres, which crucially could be accessed by elite swimmers during lockdown, have produced at least one gold medallist at these Games and plenty of other encouraging performances. The centres all go by the mantra: ‘One Team, Winning Well, In Water’. Tom Dean, who moved to the Bath base from Maidenhead just three years before winning his two gold medals, highlighted this structure. “I’ve seen everyone get stronger,” he said. “I think the national centres within British swimming are much more united. It’s less individual and feels a bit more of a team.”
To understand the authenticity of the all-for-one mentality of the British swimming team in Tokyo, you only had to see Guy’s tearful reaction to Dean’s gold medal. “I felt like I was swimming with him – that’s why I was so emotional,” said Guy, despite missing out on a place in the same event. Jacob Whittle who, aged 16, is the most junior member of the Tokyo squad and reached the semi-final of the 100m freestyle, felt that he was competing as part of a team rather than simply an individual. “They really support the juniors and treat everyone the same whether you have been to three Olympics or it is your first one,” he said. “All the other swimmers are willing to help you. If people are not racing they are in the stands supporting you. Every time you go to dinner there will be someone in there – not just from the swimmers but the staff as well. It’s life experiences as well as in the pool.” Dean says that he has never been on a team where people push each other so much. “It’s almost an expectation to bring home international medals now,” he said.
The Peaty factor
Most great sporting talent factories start with a pioneering figure who lights the way. In British swimming, this role has undoubtedly been filled by Adam Peaty. It is not just his global dominance of one event that has so influenced the rest of the team during the past nine years but the way in which that success has been achieved. Peaty says that his “dying philosophy” is that no one will work harder and, once they start training with him up close, even most elite swimmers are forced to re-appraise their own approach. “You can see our youngsters watching how [Peaty] trains,” said Chris Spicer, British Swimming’s performance director. “He is a leader in more ways than just swimming fast in the pool.” The other swimmers have been queuing up this week to talk about Peaty’s inspiring impact and an aura so far removed from any possible inferiority complex. “Adam getting gold set the team off,” said Abbie Wood, who finished fourth in the 200m individual medley. Dean also stressed Peaty’s influence but stressed the transformation. “It’s no longer just the Peaty show – we are bringing home medals in other events,” he said.
It was noticeable on Tuesday morning that Siobhan Marie O’Connor, who was forced to retire from swimming in May due to persistent illness, should think immediately of the coach David McNulty when Dean triumphed. “The greatest British coach of all time,” said O’Connor. “He has produced seven Olympic medalists over the past four Games. All in completely different events.” Under the leadership of Spice, British Swimming does appear to have assembled an exceptional group of coaches. McNulty is hugely popular with his swimmers and then there is Mel Marshall, Peaty’s long-time coach, but now also working with a growing group of young Olympians in Loughborough which include Whittle, Luke Greenback, Anna Hopkin and Sarah Vasey. Marshall, who is herself a multiple Commonwealth Games medallist, used to coach 500 swimmers a week of all abilities in Derby but now focuses on her elite group in Loughborough. Expect further champions to emerge.
Coach David McNulty has produced seven Olympic medalists over the past four Games
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Patience and a one-year delay
Peaty would have won his gold medal if the race had been run any year since 2014 but, for most other Olympic events, the delay for the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact. And, by and large, it appears to have aided the British swimmers. Dean has made an improvement of almost two seconds in the 200m freestyle since last summer and, at the age of 18, an extra 12 months was clearly vital to Matthew Richards who swam such an outstanding third leg in the 4x200m freestyle relay. “As far as I’m concerned, this is just the very beginning,” said Richards. “This team has got so much potential – the youngsters that are coming up through British swimming at the moment are just so exciting and the knowledge and experience of the older guys filtering down is just phenomenal.” Wood, Hopkin, Whittle, Freya Anderson and Kathleen Dawson are among the other young British swimmers who have all also been improving over the past year. "Potentially one of two wouldn’t have been quite where they would have liked to be – it’s been a massive benefit to have the extra year," Hopkin said.