Pickering aims for Athens success

SWIMMING: With three more Commonwealth medals to her name, Ipswich swimmer Karen Pickering is this week embarking on a new tense competition – this time in Athens.

By Debbie Watson

SWIMMING

WITH three more Commonwealth medals to her name, Ipswich swimmer Karen Pickering is this week embarking on a new tense competition – this time in Athens.

Having helped secure England's best-ever swimming success in a Commonwealth event, the 30-year-old Suffolk star will today start a fresh bid 2002 Greek National Championships.

The latest event should see Karen in fine form, and ready to build on her spectacular achievements at the Manchester Aquatic Centre.

In a week of top-level competition that undoubtedly proved her continued talent, Karen claimed one individual gold, a relay gold and silver for England, and also a fourth place.

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It takes the swimmer's overall Commonwealth medal haul to an amazing 13 in total – unquestionably defying those critics who suggested Karen might have seen an end to her pool-based glory days.

Speaking about her terrific performance in this year's games, Karen said: "I feel terrific. This event has been great for me, great for the England squad and great for British swimming in general.

"As a team, all the swimmers really felt they had a lot to prove after a disappointing time at the last Olympics.

"We wanted to set a few records straight, and in particular, we wanted to prove ourselves a very strong contender alongside the Aussies."

It's already being said that the Australian side – known for their impressive potential in the pool – have gained a new respect for England in the light of the swimming triumphs at the games.

England had gone into the Commonwealth Games with the firm intention of winning more than the five gold medals achieved in Kuala Lumpur four years ago.

In fact, they doubled that tally, taking an impressive ten gold, eight silver and 14 bronze medals.

"It's more than any of us had dared to hope for," commented Karen. "We couldn't be more pleased about it.

"There's been a great atmosphere at Manchester for the last fortnight, and English swimming has really had its opportunity to make people stand back and take notice. I'm so proud to have been in this year's team."

Having had her heart set on top places in the 100 metres and 200 metres freestyle, Karen eventually emerged with a gold for the 200m and a fourth place in the 100m.

She admitted that the later event had been something of a disappointment.

"To come fourth is just the worst," she said. "You come so close to the podium, but you actually end up without a medal at all. That's so frustrating, and yes, I was disappointed.

"It's also hard to swim two races in one session and I'd already put in a lot for the 4x200m freestyle relay by the time my individual swim came round. That's tough on anyone – no matter how well prepared you are.

"I'm not going to analyse it too much or reproach myself. I still feel fantastic about how the games have gone for me – and my swim in the 200m individual event was far more than I'd dared hope for."

Karen, who helped England to a gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay and a silver in the 4x100m, has been at the Games with her coach of many years, Kesgrave's Dave Champion.

"Dave is equally ecstatic with how I've performed – and how the team has done," she said.

"He's been in Manchester as one of the England coaches and he was in charge of the 4x200m relay, so to him, it was an extra special victory when we took that gold.

"In swimming there's something particularly special about being part of a relay for your country, and that's why one of our girls made the decision to pull out of her individual race to be with us for the 4x200m.

"That race was an important one to us because it was being billed as something of a grudge match – in the end, it went absolutely perfectly for us."

Karen is now already changing her swimming focus to the Athens-based Greek Nationals.

"There's no time for resting because we're moving straight into the nationals, then on to a training camp in Cyprus," the Ipswich star added.

"We're all feeling so high after Manchester that I think we're taking a lot of confidence and energy with us.

"I'm certainly still buzzing from the excitement of it all."

Considered something of a veteran in England swimming, Karen's future is already the subject of much speculation on the sporting circuit.

She has been taking part in the Commonwealth Games since 1990 and has already swum in seven World Championships, nine European Championships and three Olympic Games.

Now, with the 2004 Olympics still two years away, she is reluctant to confirm her intentions either way.

"I'm still taking it all a step at a time," she said. "When I'm swimming like I did on the first day of the games I find it hard to see myself giving up.

"I'll know when that time is right, but for now, I still am very much focused on Athens in 2004."

Karen will now face a three-week mix of competition and training camps before returning to Ipswich to resume her routine training schedule at Crown Pools.

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