The Tank gunning for glory in 2012
Rich Hook @RHk_v8
Liam Tancock may have just become a two-time world champion but he says won’t be happy until he claims an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
The 26 year-old, who successfully defended his 50 metres backstroke title at the World Championships in Shanghai, said: “Winning my first world title [in Rome] two years ago was amazing, and to repeat again this time was a very special feeling that few people get to experience. But to win in front of a home crowd would be something else.”
Tancock was so focused on his events in China that he didn’t have time to see Tom Daley break the water of the Aquatics Centre at the One Year To Go Event but he can’t wait to experience the venue in London himself.
“I’ve only seen pictures [of the Aquatics Centre] so far but we’re going on a team visit in October and that’s really exciting,” he said. “It’s great for the public to see elite athletes in action and it will inspire more kids to get into the sport. We got a taste of it with the Commonwealths in 2005 and I’m sure it will be fantastic next year.”
Not that Tancock is getting ahead of himself; he just believes that British swimming is stronger than ever and, as a consequence, nobody is assured of their place.
“There’s always guys coming through and it’s no longer a case of them being happy to just make the team, they are here to compete, break records and win medals,” he said.
“It’s a great position to be in when the toughest competition is just to make the team. It means everyone has to keep pushing and that can only help improve times.”
The Exeter-born swimmer gives a lot of the credit for the current state of the sport in this country to Bill Sweetenham, the controversial former performance director of British Swimming.
Between 2001 and 2005, Sweetenham helped Britain to win as many medals at the World Championships as they had in the 28-year history of the event prior to his appointment, but he was often criticised by veteran team members for what they perceived as an “excessive” style of man-management.
Yet Tancock feels that Sweetenham put in place many key processes and helped to build the foundations for the team’s successes since Beijing.
But while the team’s overall performances have been impressive in recent major championships, there has been a notable disparity between the achievements of Britain’s men and women.
Since 2008 male swimmers have won seven world, Olympic and European long-course medals compared with 33 for their female team-mates.
Four of those medals were from Tancock, including two golds, and he has established himself as the go-to-guy for big performances.
That ability to perform on the big stage has drawn praise from many in the swimming media. Mark Foster, the winner of six short-course world titles who now works for the BBC, said: “Liam has a great attitude and was born to compete. The great thing about him is that when a competition comes round he is always at the top of his game.”
It would be easy for the 26 year-old to let this praise and success go to his head but he continues to stay humble and credits much of his success to team support:
“There’s a great environment when we get together as a team because everyone enjoys working together and we spur each other on,” he said.
With more than 20 senior international medals to his credit, Tancock clearly thrives on competition, something he puts down to his coaches, from Jon Randall at Exeter City Swimming Club right up to Sweetenham and Ben Titley in the national set-up.
He said of his first coach: “He [Randall] was brilliant, I enjoyed his coaching and he seemed to know what I needed in training to make me swim fast.”
Ironically, Sweetenham is now helping one of Tancock’s backstroke rivals, Aschwin Wildeboer, in his role as consultant to the Spanish swimming team.
The Briton expects his event to be among the most competitive at the London Games and while the 50 metres is not an Olympic event, he believes he is one of eight or nine swimmers in with a shout of a medal in the 100 metres.
“Obviously the two French lads [Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius] showed their quality at the Worlds [winning joint gold] but everyone in that final has a chance,” he said. “It’s such a broad event and the times are so close between myself, [Ryosuke] Irie, [Helge] Meeuw, [Stanislav] Donets, the two Americans [Nicholas Thoman and David Plummer] and the Aussie, [Hayden] Stoeckel, that it all depends who’s on form.
“But I’ve beaten them before and I know that, especially with that home crowd, I will definitely be in the mix next year.”
Backstroke isn’t the only event that is progressing, with the stunning world record swims of Ryan Lochte, in the 200 metres individual medley, and Sun Yang, in the 1500 metres freestyle, among the highlights of the Shanghai meet.
Despite setting his 50 metres world record of 24.04 seconds in August 2009 in one of the performance-enhancing polyurethrane-coated bodysuits that have since been banned, Tancock always felt that the times set during the so-called “shiny suit era” were beatable.
“People were saying it would take 20 years to get down to those times again,” he said. “But it’s a mental thing and now the barriers have been broken they will all begin to fall.”
Record-breaking swims aren’t the only thing Tancock is looking forward to seeing at London 2012. Between training sessions at the performance centre in Loughborough University he loves to watch fellow Team GB stars such as Martyn Rooney (athletics), Jade Clarke (netball) and Anthony Clark (badminton) performing.
So after the swimming events have ended in London, expect to see Tancock around the Olympic venues, especially as he broadens his training horizons in an effort to get an edge on the competition.
“We do a lot of cross-training at Loughborough,” he said. “It’s all tailored to improving our swimming, so we’ll do weights but also try to pick things up from all sports.
“Ballet and kickboxing are excellent for improving your core and body control, which is key on backstroke, and we also do some rock climbing. It’s important to keep the training varied and it’s all with the end goal of making us faster.”
The Devonian played all kinds of sports when he was growing up and instantly fell in love with swimming.
In his biography he recalled: “Watching my brother learning to swim was the hardest thing, I just wanted to jump into the pool. But as I was two years younger I had to sit on poolside and wait. After a year, my persistence paid off and I started a year below age. From then on it was in my blood.”
It was clear from early on that Tancock had talent, even travelling to Wales to race as a nine-year old. Having caught the “racing bug”, he swam as many events as possible and began racking up age group national titles in backstroke, individual medley and freestyle.
His major breakthrough came when he won two golds at the European Youth Olympics in 2001, so when he left St Lukes High School in 2003 he knew he needed to move to further his career.
“It was an easy decision to go to Loughborough,” he said. “It’s got great facilities and I get to train alongside friends like Fran [Halsall], Lizzie [Simmonds] and, of course, Cait [McClatchey, his girlfriend].”
There are long-course (50 metres) and short-course (25 metres) pools at Loughborough, but the lack of top-class swimming facilities in the UK remains an issue.
Britain only has six Olympic-size pools, compared with 47 in Australia, but Tancock is hoping events such as the Big Splash encourage more swimmers.
“I’ve had good feedback about it, and it’s great to inspire young swimmers,” he said. “I started training and never looked back, so this sort of thing is great to get people into pools.”
Before deciding to focus on his aquatic career at 14, the champion swimmer was also an accomplished rugby player for his hometown side, Exeter Chiefs.
He still likes to watch them and is delighted with the success they have enjoyed recently with promotion to the Aviva Premiership and a first European campaign.
With the Chiefs having done so well in their trademark black kit, Tancock is happy to see England follow suit.
“They’re still going to play in white most of the time, so I don’t see a problem with it. We as fans care more about how they are playing than what they’re wearing.”
Interaction with fans is important to Tancock and he feels that Twitter provides a fantastic platform to allow people to learn about the swimmers behind the medals.
“Normally, people just see us getting out after a race, soaking wet and short of breath, so it’s great to have a platform where fans can see sports stars in their true light,” he said.
“It’s nice to hear the messages of support when we’re off competing but it’s also nice just to chat about day-to-day things and let our personalities come through.”
Unlike Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics who has spoken out against athletes using the microblogging site, Tancock says that British swim chiefs are happy to see members of the squad like Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson growing their fanbases on Twitter.
“It makes us seem more approachable to the fans and, at the end of the day, attention is a good thing for our sport.”
The sporting world’s attention will certainly be on British swimming come July 2012 and Tancock is more than ready to give them all something to write about.
Liam Tancock is a Speedo sponsored athlete www.speedo.co.uk
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s interview with England rugby star Mark Cueto