Russia is doorway to Rio for Yorkshire hopefuls

City of Leeds's Rebecca Gallantree and Alicia Blagg (nearside).
City of Leeds's Rebecca Gallantree and Alicia Blagg (nearside).
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Kazan in Russia may be as far removed from Rio de Janeiro as it gets but for nearly a dozen Yorkshire aquatics stars it is a significant gate post on the road to Rio.

The city that lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers and some 500 miles east of Moscow hosts the 16th FINA World Championships over the next fortnight when 11 of this county’s most accomplished athletes bid for global glory.

The chance to take a sizable step towards the Olympics in Rio next summer is also on offer, with qualifying places up for grabs across a number of disciplines.

The divers take centre stage in the first week – the preliminary round of the 1m springboard event began before last night’s opening ceremony – with the City of Leeds Club once again providing the bulk of the competitors.

Six of the nine-strong British team train regularly at the John Charles Aquatics Centre.

Harrogate’s Jack Laugher is fast becoming one of the world’s best and will look to build on the two gold medals he won at last year’s Commonwealth Games, as well as the bronze he claimed in elite company at last year’s World Cup in Shanghai.

He contests the 3m springboard as well as the 3m synchro alongside Chris Mears, a Londoner by birth, but an athlete who came to Leeds because of the strength of its diving club.

Wakefield’s Alicia Blagg teams up with club-mate Rebecca Gallantree in the 3m synchro looking to emulate what the two – 12 years apart in age – managed when they surprised even themselves by winning gold in Glasgow last year.

Blagg, 18, who is aiming to reach the final to qualify her place for Rio, said: “It will be tough to get in the top 12 to qualify for Rio but I’m determined to do that so it’s one less thing to worry about.

“We need to finish in the top three in the synchro to qualify for the Olympics and we have been training hard so we will see what happens. If I don’t qualify, then we have another six or seven months until the next qualifying event.

“But for me it is simply about qualifying for Rio. I’m not thinking about trying to a get a medal because it can distract you from everything else.

“The thing with diving is that things can change so quickly. One minute you could be world champion and then if you have one bad dive you are sixth.

“So you have to be focused and take it dive by dive and not get carried away.”

If Blagg, Laugher and Gallantree are established, then the final two members of the Leeds sextet are competing at a senior world championships for the first time.

That is not to say that 10m synchro partners James Denny, 21, and Matty Lee, 17, – both of Leeds – are not well-versed in international competition.

Lee, won gold in the men’s platform at the recent European Games in Baku while Denny partnered diving superstar Tom Daley to a silver medal off the high board at the Commonwealth Games.

“It was quite a surprise to be named on the team as it is hard to break into the top level of competition,” said Denny.

“But while I didn’t expect it I thought I was in with a shout because I had been performing well and the world championships seemed like a logical next step.

“Me and Matty have been working really hard for it because at the beginning of the season we saw there was a bit of a gap and thought we would put something together for it.

“I will be happy if we just make the final and from there we can really push for one of those top three places because anything can happen in a final.”

Lee added: “I am looking forward to competing with the world’s best.

“I’m not expecting to medal because I am young and it is my first senior world championships but I want to use it to get as much experience as possible.

“It will be a long competition so it will help me get used to that ahead of competitions like the Olympics.

“It will be great preparation for Rio as most of the divers will be the same and it will be a similar format.”

The swimming portion of the world championships begins next Sunday with five from the White Rose county involved in a 30-strong British squad.

Commonwealth Games silver medallist Aimee Willmott of Middlesbrough will look to continue her progression in the individual medleys, while Beverley’s backstroke specialist Lizzie Simmonds attends her fourth world championships after missing out on selection two years ago.

The City of Sheffield club sends three swimmers to Kazan, Olympians Ellie Faulkner and Rebecca Turner and debutant Nick Grainger.

There would have been six swimmers from Yorkshire but Harrogate’s Sophie Taylor, 19, – the Commonwealth 100m breaststroke champion who competed for Doncaster, Sheffield and Leeds in her youth – is taking a break from the sport.

British Swimming head coach Bill Furniss said: “I have spoken at length with Sophie and this is not a decision she has taken lightly.

“At this point, Sophie is not enjoying her swimming and feels she needs time away from the sport.

“The door remains open once she has had a break and is ready to reconsider her future.”