For the past five years, since he won the European Junior 200 butterfly gold medal, James Hickman has been eagerly watched and has seldom disappointed.
He joined the Stockport scheme in England at the age of seven. At that time, he was a freestyle swimmer and his friend Graeme Smith, the 1996 Olympic 1500 freesyle bronze medallist, swam butterfly. In his early teenage years Hickman found that butterfly was his forte. He broke through in 1993 with the European Junior title.
At the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. BC, he won the bronze in the 200 butterfly (2:00.87). In 1997 he won the gold at the World Short Course Championships in the same event. The world really started to sit up and take notice.
The rest of 1997 is something he would prefer to forget. Prior to the European Championships, in a training camp in Granada, he was laid low with the Spanish tummy. Not one to carry any extra weight, he lost around 10 pounds (4 kg). Well below par in the 100 butterfly, Hickman knew those championships were not going to be his. On medical advice, he was a spectator for the rest of the competition. On returning home to Manchester, Hickman took stock of his situation and decided it was time for a change. Where and what, he still had to decide.
That decision was put on hold while concentrating on getting fit for the World Championships, where he improved from seventh at the Olympics to fifth in Perth for the 200 fly.
Upon his return home, the decision where his future lay had to be made. After visiting all the potential options, he selected Leeds, where he could train long course. As well, coach Terry Denison was used to top international swimmers, having coached Adrian Moorhouse to Olympic gold in 1988.
Hickman had his greatest moment in March at the Paris World Cup when, in front of a packed audience, he established a new short course world record in the 200 butterfly (1:51.76), bettering the old mark set by Olympic champion Denis Pankratov.
Confidence is something Hickman never lacked, but Denison has taught him to be a little more cautious in his predicitions. Hickman is never lost for words and ready to talk to the media. With deadlines looming, the problem is usually getting him to stop talking. Before Kuala Lumpur, you could feel he wanted to tell you he was going for gold in each of his four events, 100 and 200 fly, and 200 and 400 I.M. But he was predicting British records as he held his tongue. Perhaps he had a premonition of what was to come.
Disqualification in the 100 butterfly was something not written into his program. But strength of character and guidance from Denison saw him put it behind him. The same evening, he went on to win the silver in the 400 I.M. in a British record of 4:20.17. His sister, whom he had helped financially to travel to Kuala Lumpur and who back-packed down from Bangkok in Thailand, told him his disqualification for a false start was something he would never do again. It was a hard lesson but one that he will never forget.
Hickman manages to fit into his busy schedule a monthly article he writes for the English governing body's magazine. There's also a girlfriend to see. But swimming is his priority. Although his IMs have improved as a result of a faster breaststroke, the 200 fly remains his top priority. He believes he's on course for the gold in Sydney 2000.