WHO WILL GET YOUR VOTE? In the first of a series of authored pieces arguing the case for your votes in the SJA’s British Sports Awards, CRAIG LORD, swimming correspondent of The Times, says that Fran Halsall, England’s first gold medal-winner at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, is the outstanding candidate for the 2010 SJA Sportswoman of the Year
At 14 years of age, Francesca Halsall, born in Southport and raised in Liverpool, set out on an incredible journey as a member of British swimming’s Smart Track squad formed by Australian coach Bill Sweetenham.
It was more than a year before London would know that it had won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, but teenaged Halsall was already primed for purpose. Now a 20-year-old, Halsall returned from Budapest this summer as the most successful British swimmer in European championship history in a single year.
Atop the five medals won by Halsall were two golds, one reaped on her own in the 100 metres freestyle, the Blue Riband event in the pool, the other as the butterfly quarter of Britain’s 4x100m medley relay that was out-touched by a Russian hand but elevated when the timing system confirmed that one of Russia’s team had dived too early from their blocks.
Back in 2004 and 2005, during the first two seasons on the Smart Track squad with the likes of Elizabeth Simmonds, 200m backstroke champion in Budapest, and Ellen Gandy, bronze medallist in the 200m butterfly, Halsall found herself on a world tour with Sweetenham, other coaches and tutors in tow. There was an altitude camp in Mexico; racing as a junior in senior waters at the US Open; then down to the swim paradise for a stretch in Australia.
At the time, Sweetenham said that his mission was to leave Britain with the best coaching team in the world. When he returned to Australia in 2007, he noted that “Ben Titley has the makings of a truly great coach”.
Titley is now guide to Halsall, her flatmate Simmonds and two others among the medallists in Budapest, Liam Tancock and Kate Haywood, at Loughborough University. In total, Titley’s charges accrued two gold, five silver and three bronze medals on Margaret Island in the Hungarian capital.
Halsall and Simmonds, eight medals to their names in all, shared a room in Budapest, their success prompting one team member to joke: “They’ve put a star on their door now and we all have to bow as we pass it.”
Halsall was lost for words over her five-medal haul, describing it as “amazing … incredible”. She dominated the 100m freestyle in 53.58. Silver medallist behind Britta Steffen (GER) at the world titles in 2009, this time the Briton was never led.
With the controversial “go-faster” swimsuits now banned, many had said that times would not be significant this year. Oh, yes they are, said Halsall, who described her feelings after looking up at the scoreboard thus: “It was crazy. I thought ‘wow’, I didn’t expect to be that quick. I was nervous going in … I haven’t had a good year on freestyle because of small injuries and so on.
“To do a season’s best and to win the gold is quite a fantastic feeling. As a world medallist I felt a bit of pressure out there … but I think I channelled it well and to get that first individual title bodes really well for the rest of the season.”
Two days after her freestyle victory, Halsall came close to a second solo gold, falling just 0.08sec shy of causing upset in a battle with world champion Sarah Sjoestroem (SWE) in the 100m butterfly, 57.32 to 57.40. The consolation: the first British record to be set since the return to textile suits.
“I wanted the gold very much but I’ve got to be happy,” said Halsall, who took bronze in the 50m freestyle and silver in the 4x100m freestyle.
“It was a personal best, a British record and a really good swim but I still feel I could have taken the gold – maybe next time. Losing by 0.08sec – I’ll feel that for the next year’s training, that’ll be a lot of motivation.”
In 2009, Halsall claimed silver in the 100m freestyle at the height of the shiny suits (non-textile, polyurethane bodysuits) crisis that led to the world titles in Rome being dubbed a circus, when 43 world records fell in eight days.
If her big solo breakthrough in senior waters was overshadowed by suits that were banned on January 1, Halsall has confirmed this year that she remains a challenger for sprint glory at a home Olympic Games in London come 2012.
Who is worthy of your vote? Check out our experts’ views here:
Voting for the SJA’s annual British Sports Awards is now open. Only SJA members may vote, and they are allowed to vote only once, when they must choose their top three choices for Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year.
Voting forms are being posted to members with the SJA Bulletin autumn edition, or you may vote online.