Sheffield sextet defy the odds and get in fast lane to Glasgow

Ellie Faulkner.
Ellie Faulkner.
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Bath and Loughborough may be the established homes of British swimming’s elite, but for a club that has defied funding cuts and criticism from above to still produce a strong contingent of top-class athletes, look no further than the Steel City.

Over the past year, City of Sheffield Swimming Club have endured authority cutbacks and a slur from the top of the sport that their training pool at Ponds Forge is “too fast”.

Yet for all the adversity, theirs was the outstanding name yesterday when Team England named their 39-strong squad for this summer’s Commonwealth Games.

Sheffield will send five swimmers to Glasgow to represent England, with just the fully-resourced and handsomely-staffed intensive training centres at Bath and Loughborough providing more athletes.

London Olympians Ellie Faulkner and Rebecca Turner will be joined by rising stars Max Litchfield, Nick Grainger and Lewis Coleman in Glasgow.

A sixth City of Sheffield member, Gareth Mills, 21, of Scarborough, will swim for host nation Scotland.

In all, Yorkshire has nine swimmers representing England.

Beverley’s backstroke specialist, Lizzie Simmonds, has overcome funding problems of her own to make a second Commonwealth Games squad, alongside Middlesbrough’s Aimee Willmott and Rotherham’s Joe Roebuck, both of whom will contest the individual medleys.

Harrogate’s Sophie Taylor, 18, the City of Leeds swimmer who claimed a clean sweep of British breaststroke titles last month, is one of the favourites to succeed this summer.

But it is the production line at Sheffield that most catches the eye. Last year, they lost local authority backing amid government spending cuts – an outcome they accepted with good grace.

Their home water at Ponds Forge also came under fire from British Swimming chief Bill Furniss for being “too fast” as an ailing squad floundered at the world championships in Barcelona, despite raising expectations with competitive times at the trials in Sheffield.

But the sextet of swimmers representing the squad this summer have proven at recent championships that they can replicate their fast times throughout the country.

The man behind it all is head coach Russ Barber, who amid the rebuilding brought about by the withdrawal of local authority support has had to juggle a broader remit that includes overseeing the juniors as well as elite swimmers.

“We’re really happy with the numbers we’re sending to Glasgow because it’s been a tough old year,” said Barber.

“We had a lot of changes at Sheffield, so it’s good to see we are coming out the end of it in good shape.

“City of Sheffield have taken on the training from the council – who had difficult, but understandable, decisions to make – and it’s been a huge undertaking for everyone.

“There’s been changes logistically in the amount of training times, but it hasn’t affected the elite swimmers.

“And this, in a way, justifies all the hard work.

“Over the years, I’ve built up a good structure and I’ve been supported by a lot of people.

“We’ve been able to give our swimmers help like physiotherapy and sports science that is crucial. It’s all a combination of the hard work that myself, the support staff and the swimmers have put in.”

As Olympic veterans, freestyle swimmers Faulkner, 21, from Sheffield, and Turner, 22, from Rotherham, will be looking to kick on from their London experiences. As for Pontefract’s Litchfield, 19, and Sheffield-based Coleman, 21, in the individual medley, and Rotherham’s freestyle prospect Grainger, 20, the Commonwealth Games represents the first major international senior meet of their burgeoning careers.

“For all of our swimmers, it’s just a case of trying as hard as you can and just getting the best results possible,” said Barber. “Work as hard as you can and do your best, and if that just happens to result in a gold medal then great, if not, but you’ve tried your hardest, then still great.

“You never really know how a swimmer is going to fare when the pressure is really on.

“Up until this point they’ve all shown that when the pressure is on, this team of swimmers can deliver results.”