Nick Westby: Yorkshire youngsters helping to breathe fresh life into Team GB

Sophie Taylor (Picture: Simon Hulme).
Sophie Taylor (Picture: Simon Hulme).
0
Have your say

The announcement last week that Michael Phelps is to make a return to competitive swimming caused barely a ripple in the sporting waters this side of ‘The Pond’.

The most successful Olympian of all time has decided that retirement is far too dull, and that chasing more glory at Rio in two years is a far better way to occupy his time.

But such is the malaise surrounding swimming in this country at present that not even the megastar American’s return can lift the gloom.

This is because British Swimming is the ugly duckling of the prime-time Olympic sports.

It is not as glamorous as cycling, which has a host of superstars with a panier full of medals.

Nor does it have the boundary-transcending heroes and heroines like athletics, which in Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill has a poster boy and girl to inspire future generations.

The slide for British Swimming began before London 2012, but a failure to meet the medal target set by UK Sport accelerated the decline and the two years since have proven a difficult time for the sport and its protagonists.

Funding was slashed, affecting clubs, swimmers and coaches. There were changes at the top of the sport as heads rolled for the disappointing performance in London.

Figureheads like Rebecca Adlington and her long-time team-mate and rival Joanne Jackson from Northallerton decided enough was enough and opted for retirement.

As other sports prospered and progressed, it seemed swimming was standing still, treading water, if you will.

But at the British Championships in Glasgow last week there were signs that the sport and its young stars are fighting back.

Six days of action at the pool which will host the Commonwealth Games aquatics events in July and August, produced a host of national records and qualifying times met for the summer’s big sporting occasion.

Aside from the few experienced standard bearers such as Fran Halsall, Michael Jamieson and Jazz Carlin, who won their fair share of titles, the landscape very much showed a young generation of future stars.

And encouragingly for the future interest in the sport in these parts, a number of them came from Yorkshire.

Olympians like Middlesbrough’s Aimee Willmott and the City of Sheffield duo Ellie Faulkner and Rebecca Turner showed they are continuing to put the experiences learned in London to good use by collecting a host of medals and clocking times that put them within the Commonwealth Games’ qualifying criteria.

Willmott, who won the 200m butterfly and earned silvers in freestyle and individual medley races, acknowledged the increase in standard when she said: “I’m so chuffed with the times I am getting, which are the product of great competition and hard training.”

Beverley’s Lizzie Simmonds continued defying the British Swimming paymasters who cut her funding last December with a polished silver in the 200m backstroke, while Rotherham’s Joe Roebuck – her fellow Olympian – also won a brace of silver medals.

But it was two teenage prospects who cite the Doncaster Dartes Swimming Club as being integral in their development, who set tongues wagging.

Max Litchfield, 18, who now trains with the City of Sheffield club which is being negotiated through under-funded waters by astute coach Russ Barber, set a personal best time to win a bronze in the 400m individual medley. His club-mate Nick Grainger also won a bronze in the 200m freestyle.

But the undoubted star of the week was 18-year-old Sophie Taylor, of Harrogate, who after leaving the Dartes now trains at City of Leeds. Taylor won the clean sweep of titles in the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke, breaking English and British records and achieving the Commonwealth Games’ qualifying mark in the latter two.

For a new poster girl for British Swimming in Glasgow, Rio and beyond, look no further than this Yorkshire teenager.

I first interviewed Taylor last year after she broke the British record in the 100m at the world junior championships in Dubai when she admitted that as well as overcoming rivals, she also has to battle her own lack of confidence. A few months on, and even after being named swimmer of the day twice during last week’s championships, she is still struggling to come to terms with her undoubted ability.

“I can’t believe I’ve won all three British breaststroke titles,” she said. “I didn’t expect it at all, especially the 200m, but it’s absolutely amazing.”

Quite how far Taylor, pictured left, can go will be fascinating to see over the coming years. But along with a whole host of bright prospects, she has the ability to get the sport in this country swimming with the tide again, rather than against it.

AND ANOTHER THING ...

Sticking to a watery theme, the splendid Aquatics Centre at the London Olympic Park hosts the next round of the FINA World Series at the weekend.

As ever, Yorkshire is well represented at the event, primarily by the team at City of Leeds Diving Club at the John Charles Aquatics Centre, which for the past few years has been making up, on average, two-thirds of the British team at major events.

Jack Laugher, Alicia Blagg and Hannah Starling, among others, are always in the hunt for final places and this weekend’s event will be a good marker ahead of the summer’s Commonwealth games.

But will we hear much about their exploits in the national press?

Probably not. If it is not concerning Tom Daley, it is not generally considered news.

Daley has elevated diving to heights it could never have dreamed about, but his achievements, private life and television appearances are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strides being made in the sport, particularly here in Yorkshire.