Karen's Olympic trauma

SUFFOLK swimming star Karen Pickering has today revealed the heartache behind her Olympic involvement at Athens.Speaking exclusively about this year's Games and some of the behind-the-scenes decision-making within the swimming fraternity, she tearfully told how she had nearly lost out on a chance to race at all.

SUFFOLK swimming star Karen Pickering has today revealed the heartache behind her Olympic involvement at Athens.

Speaking exclusively about this year's Games and some of the behind-the-scenes decision-making within the swimming fraternity, she tearfully told how she had nearly lost out on a chance to race at all.

Now enjoying some post-competition rest before embarking on her usual training schedule, the 32-year-old Commonwealth champion said she was 'exhausted', and suffering from 'mixed emotions' in the aftermath of the Games.

“I came out of my swim feeling I had done the absolute best I could possibly have done,” she said. “I was really happy with my time and with my own effort - but obviously, as a team we only finished the relay in fifth.

“I wanted a medal more than anything, so in that respect, I was absolutely gutted.”

Pickering, who trains at Ipswich's Crown Pools and has been swimming for her country for some 18 years, has made no secret of her yearning for an Olympic medal.

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Despite enormous success on the world stage and several Olympic appearances as part of the GB team, she has been unable to add this one trophy to her haul so far.

This year, the medal still evaded her - prompting speculation that Pickering may now decide not to retire before the next Olympic spectacle in 2008.

However, talking with great honesty and clarity to The Evening Star this week, she revealed the more immediate issues that have been on her mind since the Greece-based sporting event.

“There was a great deal that went on out there for the swimming team that people just didn't know about,” she said.

“With eight days to go before the actual racing, the performance director (Bill Sweetenham) told me that he didn't want either Karen Legg or myself in the team.

“He told me that despite everything, I was too much of a risk and he didn't want me on the 4x200m relay squad - even though I have consistently performed.”

Making no secret of her pain and annoyance, she added: “We were both devastated. From my own point of view, I was very lucky that my coach, Dave Champion, was out there with me and able to keep me focused through the pre-Games training.

“Without him, I think it would all really have got to me.

“It was not at all what you expect to happen when you're out there. I had to go to my family, who'd travelled to Athens, and tell them there's every chance I won't be swimming at all.”

As fate would have it, Karen was to get her swim after all - but not without a great deal of anguish and some exceptionally high target-setting.

“About a day before the Games I was told that I could swim the heat for the event, but that I would have to achieve a time that was even faster than my best split to date.

“Even that, I was told, wouldn't guarantee me a place.

“That really hurt, because I've done so much for team swims and I always perform and give everything, yet I was effectively being told 'we don't need you'.”

Pickering accepts that the period of qualifying for the Olympic team itself may have had something to do with the performance director's assessment.

Despite a very strong year, she had missed out on an individual place in the team - but only due to untimely sickness on the day of qualifying at a British event several months previous.

“He said that my form was what he was basing the decision on,” she said emotionally.

“I know I didn't swim well in the trials - but that was only because I was ill.

“To be honest, I think he just felt that the younger ones would do a better job on the relay.”

Sweetenham gave Karen a time she regards as “unrealistic” as a goal for the heats and then with the Games under way, a re-think began to take place.

“Once the Games started and the girls were not performing, we were all told that no-one's place on the relay would be safe and that we'd all have to swim for it in the heat,” Karen continued.

“That opened up my chances and I ended up with the fastest split, so got my place in the race.

“Even so, I found it really difficult realising how little some people thought of me and at one point I said to my coach that if they didn't swim me in the heat, there would be no way I would ever swim for my country again.”

Karen's effort in the 4x200m was eventually so impressive that she was unable to even walk from the pool by the end of her contribution.

She had to be carried to the cool-down area and was then told by Sweetenham that her swim had been “awesome”.

“I proved it was wrong to write me off,” she insisted defiantly.

Karen's less-than perfect Olympic experience was made even more difficult when the swimming team were told that they had no choice but to return to Britain - midway through the Games within a short time of the swimming finishing - to participate in the shortcourse event.

“The swim team didn't want to go back,” Karen said.

“You want to stay and enjoy the Olympic experience if you've got that far, because it's something so very special.

“We were told we didn't have the choice and that we would have our lottery funding, on which we sports people rely, pulled if we didn't do as we were told and go home.”

She added: “In the end, we negotiated to stay out there until the Wednesday, to fly in to Manchester to swim and then to fly back on the Saturday for the closing ceremony.

“We had to pay to go back to the ceremony, which upset a lot of people. It was a £390 return cost that we didn't feel we should have been in a position to have to pay, but we all wanted to go back to the closing ceremony because it's so memorable.”

Trying desperately to remain upbeat in the face of the experience, Karen showered praise on the British swimming team as a whole.

She believes that despite the expectation of more medals, the squad still achieved great things.

“We were very successful, even though we didn't get as many medals as we might have wanted to,” she said.

“We consistently had swimmers in the finals, and we did ourselves proud.

“There were a lot of GB swimmers there for the first time in an Olympics and they proved that in four years' time they will be really strong.”

As for Karen's future in the sport, the Suffolk star is clearly using this experience as a chance to assess what will be right for her.

“Obviously I've felt pretty disillusioned over all this,” she admitted. “For me, there are some things I've really loved over the last few years of swimming, but there have also been some bad times.

“I'm 32 years old and a lot of the time I am being spoken to like a child.

“I don't want to go on if this is how it's going to be.”

Karen has made the decision not to take part in the forthcoming World Shortcourse Championships, but said she was definitely planning to be involved in the World Cup.

“I don't want to stop swimming,” she said emphatically.

“I'm not ready to fully retire, but there are also things I'm not going to accept from now on.”