Far Foreign Places

By David

One of the most enjoyable aspects of FINA World Cup competition is the involvement of so many diverse and interesting nationalities. Watching their different personalities is at times serious, funny, sad, educational and always entertaining. This year’s World Cup was no exception. Here is what I mean.

Great Britain

Unfortunately, the Brits are not what they used to be. In days gone by they were the party team to end all party teams; a group packed with exciting and rebellious individuals. You can probably imagine the chaos after midnight by the likes of Foster, Hickman, Fibbens and Meadows. They might not have won all the races they should, although they didn’t do too badly on the world stage, but they did it in the best possible British tradition of not taking this winning and losing business too seriously. They had style. Things are a bit different now. Sweetenham inspired mass stretching sessions and endless team talks stressing the importance of “lights out” and exemplary behaviour. This year’s British team had about fifteen swimmers, coached by an impressive–and I would imagine expensive–gang of six coaches. That ratio and Sweetenham’s legacy is guaranteed to produce a personality void. However, all may not be lost. On the bus taking us to Berlin airport, I was surrounded by British swimmers discussing the merits of “custard tarts with jam”. The standard of British humor was at its best. One day soon teams from the UK may be British again.

Australia – You want to see dull? Take a look at the bloody Australians. On the last day of the World Cup as most of the rest of the world headed home, some nursing varying degrees of hangover, the Australians were out of bed early and off to training. Now, I’m a training fanatic. I love the sound of 100 kilometers a week, of 12,000 meter sessions and 30×200 sets. But please: give me a break. The end of the World Cup is the end of the World Cup. It’s time to go home, to lie on a beach and congratulate your self on a job well done – except, it seems, if you’re Australian. They are consistent though. For years they’ve taken great delight in proving they train harder that anyone. The problem is they make it so bloody obvious. I suspect they feel the training is a bit pointless unless the rest of the world knows about it. It’s no good being tough unless everyone else knows.

New Zealand – There was only one New Zealand swimmer at the European World Cup Meets, Melissa Ingram. She swam amazingly well, winning the 200 backstroke and almost winning the 400 meters freestyle wherever she went. She traveled on her own and acted and performed like the very best athletes from her proud little country. Sir Edmund Hillary, Colin Meads, Danyon Loader, Peter Snell and John Walker would have been very pleased with the way Melissa Ingram conducted her tour. Polite, quiet, unassuming, a genuinely nice person and a winner; she was a pleasure to watch.

United States – The US did not have its Phelps and Lochte superstars at this year’s meets. That was a pity. The tour deserves their support. However the USA was well represented. I was pleased with the Aqua Crest American. Skuba swam big personal bests in the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 50 butterfly. The tough competition brought out his very best. The four others from the USA, Marshall, Bal, Kirk and Joyce, had good meets, three world records and half a dozen wins. There is no doubt about it the US swimmers are a polished lot. They smile for the cameras and wave to the crowd better than the rest of the world. Their PR is peerless. They back it up in the pool as well. That Tara Kirk might be small in size but she’s got the heart of a lion. She won the 100 IM in Berlin ahead of girls that were probably better than her. She just worked them all to death. It was tremendous fun to watch. It is a shame she did not make the trip to Beijing. She’d have done her nation proud. I was pleased to see Joyce improve at every meet. She’s a class act and should go on to London.

Russia – My opinion of the Russian team is, unfortunately, influenced by my impression of their capital city. What a shambles: whatever it was the communists were hoping to achieve, it hasn’t worked. Their traffic is the worst I’ve seen – and I have driven cars in Bangkok, Paris, London, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong. Moscow is without equal; no one cares, red lights, green lights, it does not seem to make any difference. Parking is governed only by where drivers want to stop. Our hotel was awful; the one thing worse than their hard beds was their food. The hotel lobby was packed with stunningly good looking Russian hookers offering a “sexy massage”. It was a nightmare. The relief of arriving in Sweden was matched only by my sense of wonder at what the group of pleasant looking Russian swimmers felt about having to soon fly back to the chaos of their homeland.

South Africa – There homeland has its problems just now, but you’d never think it by the attitude and performance of their swim team. They broke world records, came close to breaking world records and won a dozen races with a smile and a laugh that conveyed the very best of this sport. The country has less than 10,000 registered swimmers, but in this World Cup series they performed well above their size. A lot of credit goes to the coach, a guy called Graham Hill, who managed the team with a quiet sense of humor that characterizes many of the world best coaches. South Africa – a happy and successful team.

And finally Sweden – This was my third trip to Sweden but my first to Stockholm and I was impressed. Impressed with the friendly people, the lovely hotel, the good food, the fast pool and especially impressed with the new starting blocks; the ones with the track start, back foot ledge. There is little doubt these blocks will soon become standard issue. The benefit they provide can not be denied for long. I noticed my mate Skuba also thought things Swedish were much to be admired – especially the frequent winner of the ladies’ 50 free and 50 fly; clearly the view of an American with impeccably good taste.