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.
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
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
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
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.