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How tough love, ruthless selection and the All Black example forged GB's greatest ever swimming team

·24 min read
swimming tokyo olympics 2020 live 4x100m adam peaty gb duncan scott - PAUL GROVER
swimming tokyo olympics 2020 live 4x100m adam peaty gb duncan scott - PAUL GROVER

“We call it high challenge, high support,” said Chris Spice, British Swimming’s performance director as he departed the Tokyo Aquatics Centre for one last time on Sunday morning at the end of eight historic days.

Britain’s swimmers had just delivered their greatest Olympic performance and Spice, a former Australia hockey international who was Sir Clive Woodward’s performance director when England won the 2003 rugby union World Cup, was being asked to define a coaching culture that, according to Adam Peaty, has become “idolised” across the swimming world.

“It’s tough love,” added Bill Furniss, British Swimming’s head coach. “This is a high-performance environment and you have to challenge people. We’re very hard on them. We set very high standards but we are also very caring. You are trying to push people to their absolute limit... but it is possible to do that in the right way.”

At the end of a week when British Rowing so publicly tore itself apart amid a debate that often veered into a binary discussion about the merits of “soft” and “hard” cultures, you needed only to travel a few miles across Tokyo Bay to see what happens when an optimum balance is found.

The best environments, of course, can be both soft or hard. The trick is in knowing when which is appropriate.

Furniss replaced Bill Sweetenham following the London 2012 Olympics when British Swimming found itself somewhere similar to British Rowing now. Medal expectations were not reached, fingers were being pointed and a circular debate raged about whether the famously uncompromising methods of Sweetenham were a bigger problem than the deficiencies of the swimmers.

Spice arrived the following April and his first request to Furniss was simple. Do nothing. Let me watch, listen and learn. Spice had never previously worked inside swimming but knew plenty about winning teams. “I needed to see the things we wanted to change and, my goodness, there were a lot,” he says.

One of the first decisions was to half the national squad so that finite resources were targeted at those swimmers deemed good enough to succeed internationally. Outside expertise was brought into key sports science and leadership roles. Talent identification was enhanced and there was a drive to create hubs that delivered a standard of coaching excellence and support which worked as a magnet for the best swimmers. Grouping the swimmers would, in turn, improve team spirit and create a virtuous educational circle. “The big stat in London (2012) was that only 20 per cent of our team swam a season’s best,” said Spice. “I thought, ‘That's something we can fix’. You can’t give someone self-confidence but you can create an environment where they build their self-belief. Our athletes are just a pleasure to be around.” On that, Spice is clearly proud of their visiting standards of cleanliness. “We’ve got a saying, ‘sweep the sheds’ which we picked up from the All Blacks,” he said. “When we’ve been somewhere, we are invisible.”

Eight medals in Japan, of which four were gold, surpassed all previous British swimming records, even if recent standards meant just a twinge of disappointment at silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay on Sunday.

Mens 4x100m Medley Relay Luke Greenbank, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott - Paul Grover for the Telegraph
Mens 4x100m Medley Relay Luke Greenbank, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott - Paul Grover for the Telegraph

It did at least require a world record to beat them, with Caeleb Dressel inspiring the Americans to just touch ahead of Luke Greenbank, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott in 3min 26.78 sec.

It was the third medal of these Games for Peaty but, having also won gold in the 4x200m relay and silvers in both the 200m freestyle and 200 individual medley, Scott went one better with four.

He now stands alone as the only Briton in any sport to ever win four medals at one Olympic Games. Team GB’s final swimming medal also put them behind only the United States and Australia as the best swimming nation at these Games

“We have 60 million in Britain but only 40,000 swimmers,” said Furniss, “You go to the States, they have 450,000 swimmers.” Tim Jones, the head of elite development, has now been asked to oversee talent identification. “We only have five or six really good ones a year probably,” said Spice. “We’ve got to make sure when we get them, they get in the right place. When I arrived we had a lot of good swimmers but they were scattered. My challenge to everyone was to make it so good that the athletes will want to come. We’ve gone from having less than 30 per cent in those centres to now almost 80.

“Our medals come from those centres because we wrap around them the absolute best support. Some of our strength and conditioning, data analysis and biomechanics is now off the charts. There’s stuff that we are doing that the rest of the world isn’t.”

Peaty's breathtaking swim put Britain close to gold - Getty Images 
Peaty's breathtaking swim put Britain close to gold - Getty Images

Spice even used Peaty to personally persuade Tom Dean to train in Bath rather than depart to the US on a college scholarship. Peaty is clearly an inspirational figure for the other swimmers. James Guy, who himself won two golds and a silver in the various relays, says that Peaty single-handedly changed British swimming and can recall team meetings from eight years ago when there would be applause simply for making the final. Furniss calls Peaty “a trailblazer” and stressed the example of what happens far away from the bright lights of an Olympics Games. “They don’t see the 365 days a year where it is total commitment - but the other swimmers do,” he said.

And, as he prepared to leave Japan on Monday, Peaty was adamant that there would be an even better Olympic performance in 2024. “The American team stepped up big time and they knew they had to,” said Peaty, reflecting on the men’s medley relay. “It’s an Olympic silver but there is a little bit of pain. Maybe you need that going to Paris. Ten years ago we were happy making finals. We aren't any more. We are aiming to dominate the world.”

GB's history-making swimmers demand more funding for leisure centres to help next generation of Olympians

By Jeremy Wilson and Tom Morgan

Team GB's swimmers have demanded more financial support for leisure centres after rounding off their biggest Olympic medal haul with another silver. Their brightest star of all, Adam Peaty, launched the appeal, while also confirming he will take a month off to recharge and protect his mental health.

As the team signed off in Tokyo with four golds, three silvers and a bronze in the pool alone, Peaty cited recent challenges faced by Simone Biles in gymnastics and Ben Stokes in cricket.

“It’s been hard for everyone, for every sport out there," said Peaty, in apparent reference to the addition complications caused by Covid-19. "It’s been very very tiring. I think what’s next is celebrating and having what Mel (Marshall, his coach) and me call a forced rest, where we’re not allowed to touch the water for a month now."

The three-time gold medallist - widely regarded as the best British swimmer of all time - will now take an entire month off. When he returns, he hopes authorities will have acted upon his demands to boost funding for both the elite and grass-roots.

Peaty, who explained how his mother had struggled to pay for him to swim as a child, said municipal facilities, in particular, had been ravaged by the pandemic. "There’s going to be a lot of clubs closing down," he warned.

At the peak of the crisis governing bodies were warned up to half of leisure centres were in danger of folding. "Without the clubs, without the leisure centres, you can’t do this sport," Peaty added. "And this sport is very expensive. I know that when I first started, my mum was looking pay-check to pay-check, how to make it work. Should we be doing that for the next generation of potential gold medal winners? That’s an open question to the people who provide the money.”

Peaty added: "Sport needs money, it may be from UK lottery or UK sport, but there needs to be more investment than ever."

At the elite level, allocated funding from National Lottery money over the past years has fallen from a peak of £25 million before London 2012 to £18.7m prior to Tokyo and will dip again to £16.6m ahead for the Paris 2024 cycle. Peaty's teammates in the 4x100m medley relay silver also expressed dismay over funding levels in their sport. Swim England had revealed prior to the Games that two million children missed out on the chance to swim amid closures during lockdown.

Luke Greenbank, who did the backstroke leg of the relay, added: "I know from my local club that there are a few swimmers struggling to come back after lockdown - it has obviously been an extremely difficult time for a lot of sports around the country and with our sport here are leisure centres closing because they are not financially viable and a lot of kids not able to swim. This team - they are amazing people, in and out of the pool, they conduct themselves really well and I hope this Olympics has the opposite effect of pandemic and really gets kids into swimming."

The British swimmers have proved a surprise hit with an otherwise sceptical public in Japan. Schoolchildren regularly waited outside their training camp with "Good Luck GB" signs. Having announce their arrival as a superpower in the sport, Peaty urged UK Sport to take note. "It does take money and time to build the best teams ever - this team was probably built over the last 12 years, if you have the right leadership, passion and motivation," he added. "But you need investment as well, to pay for training camps, championships, it does not come from nothing."

As well as preparing for the Olympics, Peaty has become a father for the first time. The 26 year-old also expects his priorities to shift over the next phase of his life. “The amount of time that has been taken away from me with my partner and my boy – he doesn’t know it – but I want to make that time up,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy it, recover. I’m going to need all the energy I’ve got and all the downtime."

Final day of Tokyo 2020 swimming - as it happened

03:55 AM

One last reminder

03:52 AM

Team photos - silver success

Great Britain's Luke Greenbank, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott celebrate with their gold medals after the Men's 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final during the Swimming events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, 01 August 2021. Olympic Games 2020 Swimming, 
Great Britain's Luke Greenbank, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Duncan Scott celebrate with their gold medals after the Men's 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final during the Swimming events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, 01 August 2021. Olympic Games 2020 Swimming,
Tokyo, Japan - August 1, 2021. Luke Greenbank of Britain, Adam Peaty of Britain, James Guy of Britain and Duncan Scott of Britain pose with their silver medals
Tokyo, Japan - August 1, 2021. Luke Greenbank of Britain, Adam Peaty of Britain, James Guy of Britain and Duncan Scott of Britain pose with their silver medals

03:48 AM

Precious cargo on the way home for the successful swimmers

03:39 AM

The relay team speak to the BBC

Luke Greenbank on a successful Games for GB…

"This week has been unbelievable for British swimming. Bit sad we didn't get the gold."

Adam Peaty Peaty on the disappointment of getting a silver…

“I laid it all down. I knew I had to do an extremely fast time, Unfortunately we didn't do enough to get the gold medal but sometimes you need to feel a little pain. People back home may be saying ‘you got silver’ but that’s the mindset we’ve now got - we're not looking at bronzes, we are not looking at silvers, we are looking at how to win gold. I know these guys are disappointed and that's just an honest opinion on what we think we can do."

Duncan Scott on the impressive week…

"I'm very fortunate to be part of some good relay teams. In 2015 when we started coming together, we would take back-to-back silvers all day. We all swam well. slightly disappointed with mine but it's been a tough week."

Adam Peaty on where British swimming goes from here…

“Wait for a new generation to come through in all sports, one that is a lot more aware of self. We'll take a big break and we'll use this to reflect and think about how we can get better, we’ve come a long way.”

03:30 AM

It's been a decent morning for Team GB so far

The silver medal in that relay added to a gold and bronze at the BMX track.

Overall this Games has been GB's best ever in the pool with eight medals - that's third behind swimming powerhouses USA and Australia. It's a mark of where the swimming team is that Peaty, Scott and Co will be disappointed with that silver.

03:03 AM


03:02 AM

Great Scott!

02:55 AM

Confirmation of the 4x100m medley result

  1. USA 3:26.7 (WR)

  2. Great Britain 3:27.51

  3. Italy 3:29.17

02:52 AM

GB get the silver!

Duncan Scott had too much to do as the USA win in a new world record!

They look disappointed but they shouldn't be - it's a new British record and European record.

Scott now has four medals (gold and three silvers) at this Games - the most of any British man at a single Games.

02:50 AM

James Guy in the butterfly

He's being chased by the USA's star Dressel and the Americans are half a second ahead with just the freestyle to go.

Can Duncan Scott over haul the USA in the last freestyle leg?

02:49 AM

Great swim from Peaty

No shock there - he's got Britain into first after his leg.

At the halfway mark Team GB lead from the Americans!

02:48 AM

USA first after first leg

It's now Adam Peaty for GB - where can he get the side to?

02:47 AM

Greenbank turns in sixth place

That's quite good from the backstroker.

The USA lead.

02:47 AM

We're off!

Greenbank goes first for GB with the backstroke - he isn't a great sprinter so if he can keep in touch then the team have a good chance.

02:45 AM

It's not just the USA vs GB

The Russian four will also be a threat.

02:44 AM

The relay teams are walking out to the pool

This promises to be close, fascinating and fast...

02:43 AM

A quick word on Emma McKeon

With four golds and three bronzes the Queen of the Tokyo pool has won the most golds by any Australian in a single Games, not only that but she has also won the most medals at a single Games by any female Olympian in history.

 Emma McKeon
Emma McKeon

02:31 AM

The USA are...

"The Americans are solid favourites"

According to Mark Foster on the BBC.

"All four of [the Britons] have medals and are pumped."

Rebecca Addlington on why Team GB can be confident they can get another gold

02:28 AM

It's coming up to the men's 4x100m medley

It's going to be tough for the British quartet but it's the last session so they can leave it all out in the pool.

Team GB are in lane 5 and the USA, the slight favourites, are in lane 1.

02:24 AM

Australia win it thanks to ...

...a brilliant final leg by Cate Campbell!

USA are second and Canada third.

There was 0.13 of a second between the Aussies and Americans. AND it's another gold for Emma McKeon - remarkable!

02:22 AM

The USA as expected

Are leading the women's 4x100m medley at the halfway mark - Australia are second and Canada third. Canada, however, have a fast second half...

02:20 AM

It's the women's 4x100m medley now

The USA are the big favourites, Australia are expected to push them all the way.

02:19 AM

Finke's fast final 50m

It was impressive to watch - after 1,450m the American went up a gear and swam his way to a fine gold in the 1,500m.

02:16 AM

Queen of the pool

02:10 AM

Meanwhile in the BMX

Team GB's Charlotte Worthington has won gold in the women’s BMX freestyle!

Catch up with how she did it here with my friend and yours Marcus Perekh: Charlotte Worthington wins gold!

Charlotte Worthington wins BMX freestyle gold with women's first 360 backflip - latest updates
Charlotte Worthington wins BMX freestyle gold with women's first 360 backflip - latest updates

02:05 AM

Finke's final 50m

Was swum in 25.7 seconds - rapid.

02:03 AM

Finke wins it!

Romanchuk comes second, and the leader for most of the race, Wellbrock got the bronze.

That was impressive from the American, he swam a fine race, waited for 1,400m then went up a gear to grab the gold.

GB's Jervis came fifth.

02:02 AM

So tight between the first three

Wellbrock still leads but Finke is making a move - he has a great turn of speed...

02:00 AM

This 1500m freestyle is a four-man race

Wellbrock still leads, Romanchuk is second, Finke (who is looking very strong) in third and Paltrinieri is fourth.

It's close with 300m to go. Jervis remains in fifth.

01:56 AM

Wellbrock still leads

From Ukraine's Mykhailo Romanchuk and the USA's Robert Finke. These three have been leading for most of the race and look strong. Dan Jervis is in fifth but with clear water between him and the leadding four which includes Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri

01:53 AM

Jervis is in fifth after 500m

Germany's Florian Wellbrock leads.

01:51 AM

I think you call this a good Games

01:49 AM

Another close call for Proud

By Jeremy Wilson in Tokyo

Ben Proud swam to fifth place in the 50m swimming freestyle, missing out on bronze by only 0.15 seconds as Caeleb Dressel swept to his fourth Olympic gold medal of the Games. In an event decided by the tiniest margins, Dressel set a new Olympic record, powering home in 21.07 sec to add to his 100m freestyle and butterfly as well as the 4x100m freestyle relay titles. Proud, a World, European and Commonwealth champion over the distance in 2017 and 2018, had the fastest reaction time at the start but was more than half a second outside his personal best by the finish. He had also finished just agonisingly outside the medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where he placed fourth in 21.68 sec, four hundredths of a second faster than today’s swim. Dressel will swim for the US later this morning in the 4x100m men's medley relay which is expected to be a showdown between the United States and Team GB.

01:48 AM

It's the men's 1500m freestyle final

Dan Jervis has done brilliantly to get this far - can he get his hands on a medal?

01:46 AM

Ben Proud speaks

"It was a tough one, that's for sure...It's been an amazing journey...I've got a couple of years left. i thought this was a good year for me but it didn't happen."

01:45 AM

Emma Mckeon wins

And become's Australia's most successful Olympian ever, ahead of the great Ian Thorpe!

That's her third gold of these Games and fourth overall and gives her 10 Olympics medals overall.

The Aussie won in an Olympic record of 23.81 secs, Sweden's Sarah Sjoestroam got silver, and Denmark's Pernille Blume took the bronze.

01:41 AM

It's the women's 50m freestyle now

No British interest.

Australia's Emma Mckeon starts as favourite.

01:40 AM

How to swim fast (just copy Dressel)

01:38 AM

Dominant Dressel

Mark Foster, on the BBC, on the ace American...he took a quarter of a seconds off the Olympic record

"That was pure dominance from Dressel - it's the shortest distance and the one he won by the most"

01:36 AM

Dressel wins impressively

The American got off to a great start and for much of the one-length race was ahead of world record pace.

It's his fourth gold medal - he's been the star performer in the pool in Tokyo. He exploded into the first stroke and won it by half a second (wow!) in 21.07secs, an Olympic record.

France's Manaudou got the silver (21.55secs) and Brazil's Fratus took the Bronze (21.57secs).

Ben Proud came fifth in 21.72 secs.

01:33 AM

Proud is in lane two

Dressel is in lane four...

They're off without any mishaps.

01:32 AM

First up is the men's 50m freestyle

It's the last night of swimming and we've got a host of finals coming your way.

It's the fastest race of the lot now, the 50m freestyle - over in just over 20 seconds.

Caeleb Dressel is the favourite - if the American gets a good start it's tough to see him not winning this. He has two opportunities for gold tonight/this morning.

Ben Proud goes for Team GB.

01:29 AM

Let's look back before we look forward

Team GB won their fourth gold in the pool yesterday.

'When Great Britain’s swimmers were last competing with such distinction on a global stage, the Olympic Games had not yet evolved to the point where the women were even invited to race.

That would wait until 1912 but, after six men’s medals this week, the women shared top billing on Saturday morning and, in the space of 3 min 37.58 sec, Team GB had doubled the number of post-war female gold medallists.'

READ: Team GB win two more golds including remarkable fourth in swimming

01:25 AM

Duncan Scott on course to become Britain's most decorated Olympian at a single Games

By Jeremy Wilson

Duncan Scott is set to become the most decorated British Olympian at any one Games after winning his third medal in four days in Tokyo, ahead of Sunday's 4x100m relay when Team GB are clear favourites for another gold.

Racing on Friday morning in the 200m individual medley, Scott became the first British swimmer to win a hat-trick of medals at any one Games since Henry Taylor in 1908 with silver in 1 min 55.28 sec, just 0.28 seconds behind the Chinese winner Shun Wang.

With Luke Greenback earlier winning bronze in the 200m backstroke, Team GB’s swimmers now have six medals, including three golds, to surpass their tally in Rio de Janeiro and make this already their most successful Olympics since 1908.

Scott has already won individual silver in the men’s 200m freestyle, missing out on gold to team-mate Tom Dean by just 0.04 sec but then swam the fifth fastest split in swimming history to anchor Team GB home in the 4x100m medley relay.

He has slipped somewhat under the radar compared to individual gold-medallists Adam Peaty and Dean but, with a schedule that requires nine races in seven days, has shown little sign of wilting and remains on course to end these Games with a unique achievement.

Doherty (tennis, 1900), Taylor (swimming, 1908), Bradley Wiggins (cycling, 2004), Chris Hoy (cycling 2008), Max Whitlock and Jason Kenny (gymnastics and cycling 2016) currently share the record of three medals at any one Games but, barring the swimming equivalent of a dropped baton in Sunday’s relay, Scott will now surpass those names.

Scott, who had qualified second fastest for the final, is a freestyle specialist and so it was of little surprise that he should lag back in sixth place after the opening backstroke leg. He then moved up to fifth in breaststroke and butterfly before unleashing a ferocious finish over the final 50m to surge through the field into second.

It was Scott’s first global medal in the 200m medley following a silver at the Commonwealth Games.

Scott, who is 24 and graduated from the University of Stirling last month with a 2:1 in Business and Sports Studies, has turned off social media and avoided speaking to friends and family to remain fully focused on what he calls the swimming “bubble” until his final race in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Greenbank had early continued the swimming medal rush with bronze in the 200m breaststroke, behind world champion Yvgeny Rylov, who set a new Olympic record of 1 min 53.27 sec to complete a Tokyo backstroke double after also winning the 100m. The finishing order was an exact repeat of the World Championship two years ago, with Ryan Murphy touching ahead of Greenbank’s third in 1 min 54.72.

Greenbank, who can win another medal in the men’s medley relay on Sunday, said that it had been “a dream come true” just to reach the final following what he called a “perfect” pre-Olympic build up.

The 23-year-old, who was born in Crewe and began his swimming in Cockermouth, Cumbria, had won bronze in the event at the 2019 World Championships and was also part of the 4x100m medley relay team with Peaty, James Guy and Scott which beat the United States to gold.

Can Duncan Scott win a fourth medal in Tokyo? - GETTY IMAGES
Can Duncan Scott win a fourth medal in Tokyo? - GETTY IMAGES

“There’s been some inspiring performances so far and I really wanted to get in on that action and win a medal,” he said.

Like Peaty, Greenbank is coached in Loughborough by Mel Marshall who, in consultation with his former coach Sean Balmer at Cockermouth, overhauled his training in 2018 after he appeared to have reached a plateau in his performance. Greenbank, who has a mop of long hair beneath his swimming cap, says that he does not now dare get cut it off.

“I started growing it two years ago - it just happened to coincide with me swimming better,” he said. “It’s a bit of a joke that it’s superstitious. I don’t believe in that - but I’ll keep it for a while, though, just in case.”

Molly Renshaw, who was fourth in Rio de Janeiro, finished sixth in the 200m breaststroke, one place ahead of her team-mate Abbie Wood after turning in fourth after 100m. The race was won by Tatjana Schoenmaker in a new world record of 2 min 18.95.

Anna Hopkin also swam in the 100m freestyle final, finishing seventh in a rapid race which was won in a new Olympic record time of 51.96 sec by the Australian swimmer Emma McKeon.

There is also a strong chance of Team GB gold medals in the 4x100m mixed medley relay on Saturday morning and then the 4 x 100m men’s medley relay in the early hours of Sunday, which will be the last swimming race of these Olympics.

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