x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Halsall set to answer her London calling

There are several leading candidates to be the female face of the London Olympics in 2012 and the swimmer will be Britain's big medal hope.

Given a choice between which Olympic competition she would like to win a gold medal in, Fran Halsall picks the 100m free. The English swimmer calls it the ‘glamour event‘.
Given a choice between which Olympic competition she would like to win a gold medal in, Fran Halsall picks the 100m free. The English swimmer calls it the ‘glamour event‘.

There are several leading candidates to be the female face of the Summer Olympics in 2012, most notably Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete, Rebecca Adlington, the swimmer, and Christine Ohuruogu, the 400 metre runner.

But if anyone accomplishes what Cathy Freeman so memorably did for the Sydney Games in 2000, it may well be Fran Halsall, who finds herself on billboards and posters all around London.

The 20-year-old swimmer, who will be the honorary starter and prize presenter at today's inaugural Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival at the Corniche, took her tally to 19 international medals by collecting five at the Commonwealth Games last week to finish as England's leading performer.

But it was her ability to come through under adversity - a debilitating case of "Delhi Belly" - that is sure to endear her to the home crown in less than two year's time.

"After winning the 50 fly I had to swim the 100 freestyle semis and I knew something was wrong," Halsall said. "My tummy was a bit rumbly. But I usually get that anyway so I thought initially that it was nerves. Then I realised it was something far more serious. I just couldn't get off my bed.

"I had no energy whatsoever. It really hurt more than anything I had ever done. My mind was going all blurred. When I look back I can't believe I did it. The experience has made me a much stronger person mentally and I know that nothing will ever be as bad as that for the rest of my career."

Halsall was delighted to leave Delhi as a Commonwealth champion but feels that some of the medals could have been a more appealing shade. Halsall is particularly regretful that she could not produce her best in the 100m freestyle.

"That was the real disappointing one for me," said Halsall, who won that race at the European Championships in Hungary in August. "I was a full second off the time I had done in the Europeans which shows how much below par I was in Delhi.

"Then to go and fail to win the 50 free after that made me feel even more frustrated. The Aussie girl who won the 100 fly and 100 free [Alicia Coutts] did the best times of the year so I would have had to have been in my best shape ever to have beaten her. But I went there confident of beating her."

Her wretched luck in Delhi makes Halsall even more determined to do well in London and then possibly have another crack at the Commonwealth Games when they also take place in Glasgow in 2014.

"I'll decide on the Commonwealths after seeing how I feel after the Olympics," she said. "But I will be still only 24 in 2014 so there is no reason why I shouldn't be involved in Glasgow."

Her mind is now totally focused, however, on the excitement of taking part in the Olympics in front of her supporters. "It is a once in a lifetime opportunity having a home Olympics," she said. "The fact that I get to experience it at 22 is a perfect situation to be in."

She is setting her sights on five events - three individual and two relays. "I want to win them all because this is the biggest event any British athlete can compete in," she said. "You don't want to go there and just scrape a medal.

"If I don't win I will be upset but I can only control what I do and be in the best shape of my life. After that it's que sera, sera."

If she was told she could have a choice of gold medals but it could be only one, she would opt for the 100m free. "That's the glamour event," she said. "I think I'm lucky to have that on my schedule. Ask any swimmer and she would love to be in that final. But the downside is that it can be the closest. The length of a finger nail can cost you a medal. I intend to grow my nails beforehand."

Halsall and the rest of the British women swimmers were given a boost in morale by the performance of Adlington, who won the 400m and 800m freestyle races at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. "It's good that we've set the bar so high going into London," Halsall said.

"We are now pushing each other on. Beckie getting two golds has meant everybody wants a bit of that. Everybody is starting to make their move. It's just really exciting."

Halsall said that the pursuit of an Olympic gold nowadays is a lengthy scientific process.

"I sat down with my coach [Ben Titley] after the last Olympics and drew up a four-year cycle," she said. "We are on schedule at the moment so I can't complain. I just have to make sure I wrap myself in cotton wool at the right times."

Next year's world championships in Shanghai will be a useful barometer, according to Halsall, who is looking forward to returning to China after what she described as an "amazing" experience in Beijing's Ice Cube pool.

"In 2007 [in Melbourne] the ones who were first to fourth there were the ones who got the medals in Beijing, so you want to be there or thereabouts next year," she said.

That means continuing a rigorous programme of 10 swimming sessions each week, coupled with various gymnasium activities ranging from circuit training to pilates.

"Ben [coach Titley] organises all that for us," she said. "I have great faith in him. He's like a second dad. Any problems anywhere in the world, I always go to Ben."

Halsall is one of seven British swimmers under the guidance of Titley. Her roommate Lizzie Simmons, who took silver in the 200m backstroke in Delhi, is one and the male backstroke swimmer Liam Tanock is another.

"I like to train against Liam," Halsall said of the man who took two Commonwealth sprint golds. "He does backstroke in about the same time as I do freestyle so it is a good challenge. I love it when I beat him."

Halsall described her first experience of Abu Dhabi as "awesome" and said she was relishing her officiating role at the Swimming Festival, which involves more than 600 competitors this morning.

"I think it's great to have something like this to get involved in," she said, promising to have a go herself making the trip across from the capital's Heritage Centre to the Public Beach.

"Anybody who completes their event will be able to look back on it as a worthwhile achievement."

wjohnson@thenational.ae