SWIMNEWS ONLINE: January 1997 Magazine Articles

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Anita Lonsbrough

To some, James Hickman, the Olympic finalist, may appear to be an over-confident 20-year-old, but in his mind, he knows exactly what he plans to do over the next three-and-a-half years and is not frightened to tell those who are willing to listen.

He has predicted much success in 1997. It will be a year in which he believes the gold medal race at both the World Short Course Championships and European Championships will be between him and Denis Pankratov, the double Olympic champion.

But between now and those championships, he has work to do, and the inaugural British Winter Championships, where he established three national records, was the start along that road.

Three British records for Hickman
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

In a rejigged schedule to fit in with live national television, James lowered the 100 butterfly mark in the heats. His time of 53.30 was 26/100 s inside the figures he recorded at the German World Cup meet earlier in the year. In the final the following day, he shaved another 27/100 s off to win the title. According to him, this was in spite of having had a bad start and turn. However, with a world all-time ranking of twenty-third (tied), there is still much to do. The swimmer from Stockport claimed that his heat time was a "bit of a surprise."

James found himself a surprise British champion in the 50 butterfly. Pavlo Khnykin of the Ukraine finished 9/100 s ahead, but as a visitor, his time did not count for the title. The favourite and world record holder, Mark Foster, was disqualified for a second false start.

In the 200 butterfly, James Hickman set out in search of a personal best only to see it fall away over the final 50 metres. But his time of 1:56.11 was just 0.54 s outside his record.

On the final day of the championships, James collected his fourth British title in his third British record time of 4:16.61 in the 400 I.M. He shaved 2/100 s off the record established by Grant Robins four years earlier.

With three British records under his belt, James was very critical about the nonpayment of prize money for British records. Scottish and Welsh swimmers were rewarded for their efforts. British swimmers have been promised by the sports high officials that when the lottery funding comes on board, swimmers could receive up to £28,000 ($64,000). Would this put extra pressure on him to do well, as he would be receiving around £10,000 ($23,000) more than the average wage? His reply was "No, I always want to do well!"

James has made drastic changes to his life since the Atlanta Games. He has given up his full-time university degree course and opted instead to study Spanish which, together with lectures and homework, amounts to a maximum of eight hours a week. The extra spare time is spent training in the gym and pool. On New Year's Day he left for Australia with a small British elite squad for three weeks of intensive training. He is looking forward to being able to train without any disruptions or distractions there.

Life for James is running smoothly compared to that of his Stockport teammate Graeme Smith. Graeme, the Olympic 1500 freestyle bronze medallist, returned to university where he is studying for a degree in accountancy, but he is finding it difficult to combine his studies with his training.

Graeme knows he has to increase his early and finishing speed if he is to improve on his bronze medal in Sydney. He swam the heats of the 1500 freestyle but withdrew from the final, opting to concentrate on the 200. Both finals were in the same session. He finished fifth behind three members of the British squad that finished fifth in the 800 freestyle relay in Atlanta, and Gavin Meadows, a member of the same relay team at the European Championships 12 months earlier.

In the 400 freestyle on the last day of action, Graeme found he was unexpectedly in with a chance of a place in the top three throughout the race. Finding a little something extra on the final 100 metres, he lowered his own Scottish record, finishing 41/100 s ahead of the field in 3:48.85.

The only other British record-breaker was Andrew Clayton, a B finalist in the 200 freestyle at the Atlanta Games. He has been close to the 200 freestyle mark for the past three years and finally eclipsed the time set five years ago by Paul Howe, the 1984 Olympic team bronze medallist.

At the European Short Course Championships the previous weekend, Andrew still managed to collect the silver medal. The 23-year-old who swims for Leeds said "When I was so ill in Rostock, I knew that if I was feeling any better I had a chance." And he took his chance with a time of 1:46.70 to complete a hat trick of victories in this event at the winter championships.

Andrew was aware that his close friend and rival, Paul Palmer, the Olympic 400 freestyle silver medallist and finalist in this event, was not in top form, not having trained properly since the Games. But as the race unfolded Andrew emerged as a clear winner, touching 1.39 s ahead of his rivals.

Claire Huddart gave herself a dream twenty-fifth birthday present, winning a hat trick of titles. Her first came in the 200 freestyle where she out-sprinted the former World Short Course champion, Karen Pickering, over the final 25 metres. Claire's time of 2:00.06 was just 3/100 s ahead. Karen had already qualified for the final of the 100 freestyle, then withdrew. In November, she had been involved in a car crash that left her with pains in her lower back, and while it was not too bad when swimming, she was often very stiff the following day.

Karen's withdrawal and the non-appearance at the championships of Susan Rolph due to the funeral of her grandmother allowed Claire to clinch her second title. She won the 100 freestyle in 55.95, 21/100 s ahead of Canada's Laura Nicholls. Third spot went to Karen Hawcroft of Manchester, who also finished third in the 200 freestyle. On both occasions, her times of 56.47 and 2:00.62 were personal bests.

The final day of competition was Claire's birthday, and she celebrated in style by leading from the start of the 200 I.M. She held the lead all the way and finished 1.72 s ahead of the field in a personal best of 2:15.75. This, together with three relay victories, made her the most successful female swimmer of the meet.

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