New challenge for globe-trotting swimmer

Suffolk swimmer Chris Walker-Hebborn finished a two year stint in Australia last month when he graduated from the British Offshore Swimming Programme.

Suffolk swimmer Chris Walker-Hebborn finished a two year stint in Australia last month when he graduated from the British Offshore Swimming Programme.

And the 18-year-old has wasted little time in embarking on the next chapter of his career by moving to America's Florida State University, as Stuart Watson found out.

CHRIS Walker-Hebborn yesterday awoke to start living on the third continent of his teenage life.

The 18-year-old returned from Down Under at the start of last month with a slight Ozzy twang to his voice having spent two years living and training on Australia's Gold Coast.

But the backstroke specialist - who has genuine ambitions of representing Great Britain at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2012 Olympics - was back at his Bury St Edmunds-based family home for barely a month before he was once again boarding a plane on Sunday.

His latest destination may be five hours behind GMT rather than 10 in front, however, it will be a familiar climate in which Walker-Hebborn's talent will continue to blossom.

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For the next four years America's Sunshine State of Florida - and more importantly its world-renowned University swimming programme - will be the newest place Team Ipswich Swimming Club's brightest young star calls home.

“I really took to the whole warm weather outdoor environment and didn't really want to come back to England to the indoor training,” explained Walker-Hebborn.

“In the early mornings, when you would normally find it hard to get motivated, you suddenly see the sun shining and it helps.

“Graduation in Australia was quite emotional. I had all my family over and although I was really happy to be moving onto to the next chapter, I was sad to say goodbye to some people that I know will be friends for life.”

It will be a nerve-racking experience for the teenager who, having not had a chance to visit his new surroundings prior to his move, starts school today having had just a single day to settle in.

He'll not mind one bit though should his times continue to plummet at the staggering rate they have been under sunny skies.

During the two years spent on the British Offshore Swimming Programme - based at Southport School, Queensland - Walker-Hebborn has knocked nearly three seconds off of his 200m backstroke time (55.44) and over five seconds off his 200m back to beat the magic two minute mark (1.59.61).

“I wasn't really sure how much I would improve but I certainly didn't expect to make this big a jump,” said Walker-Hebborn who, at the Great Britain Olympic trials held in Sheffield last March finished just two places and 0.6 seconds away from securing a surprise place in the GB squad which travelled to Beijing.

“The offer to join Florida State University came about following the Olympic Trials,” added Walker-Hebborn.

“Their coach, Neil Harper, had brought over some of his British swimmers to the trials and apparently had been impressed with me.

“He contacted me in Australia the following month and asked if I would like to join his programme in 2009.”

The name of Neil Harper is well known in the swimming world. The 43-year-old represented Great Britain at the 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1988 (Seoul) Olympic Games in the 100m and 200m backstroke before quickly switching to coaching.

For the last 10 years he has brought unprecedented swimming success to Florida State University as the programme's head coach.

Harper has coached swimmers of various nationalities at the 2000 (Sydney) and 2004 (Athens) Olympics Games and at present has some of the world's best young swimmers on his Florida programme.

The majority of his squad - which last year numbered 26 boys and 25 girls - are American, however, being originally from London himself Harper has also assembled a small group of young British swimmers over in Florida.

Walker-Hebborn will therefore now join fellow British swimmers including Matt Shead and Rob Holderness, the latter who he is due to live with, as they aim to break into the GB squad.

The Suffolk teenager, who doesn't turn 19 until July, is determined to first make it to Delhi, India for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, before securing a dream Olympic appearance on home soil two years later.

“The main goal at the moment is the Commonwealth Games. I have got a good chance of getting to them because two of the people who finished above me at the Great Britain trials are from Scotland and Wales, so take them out and I move into the top two.”

This will be the first year that Walker-Hebborn - who took two gold medals at the World Youth Championships in Mexico and four

gold medals at the European Youth Championships in Serbia last year - has competed at senior level.

“People keep telling me that the jump from junior to senior swimming is a big one,” said Walker-Hebborn. “I know I'm going to be bottom of the pecking order to start with but I quite like the challenge of rising through the ranks again.”

The first major competition of Walker-Hebborn's year will be in March when the Great Britain trials will once again be held at Sheffield's Ponds Forge pools. Should he do well enough - with the freestyle events also providing him another route into the squad via the relay teams should he not make the top two for the individual backstroke events again - then Walker-Hebborn will travel to the World Championships in Rome in August.

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