| Mark Foster is the senior statesman, mellow and laid back, content to make waves only in the pool
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks — at least that’s the perceived wisdom — and as the proud and doting owner of two British bulldogs, Mark Foster knows there is a strong element of truth in that. However, as a greying 33-year-old still trying to become the world’s fastest swimmer, he has to believe that there is always room for improvement.
The 50m freestyle is the ultimate burn-up as far as swimmers are concerned, brutally uncomplicated in its objective. No tumble turns to interrupt the flow and confuse the issue, few tactics to clutter the mind, and you get no points for style. Getting to the other end first is the only thing that counts if you are going to make a splash. An aquatic cavalry charge in which less than a metre can separate first and last.
Foster, who finished seventh at the Sydney Olympics, will again be hoping to go for gold at the World Championships, which start in Barcelona next week. He has a good medal chance in the 50m butterfly, in which he has recorded the fastest time of the year so far (and in which he won bronze at the World Championships in Japan two years ago) and will be hoping that Bill Sweetenham, Britain’s performance director, will grant him another medal opportunity in the freestyle event when the additions are announced next week.
Foster enjoys the luxury of a back-up event but, with all due respect, nobody remembers the name of the 50 butterfly champion. To be dubbed the world’s fastest swimmer, however, is another matter.
Foster holds the short-course record (for events held in 25m pools) with the 21.13 seconds he clocked in Paris two years ago. However, the 50m long-course record is the one everybody defers to, and that continues to elude him. His best is 22.32, compared with Alexander Popov’s world mark of 21.64.
Sprinting is normally a young man’s game but not exclusively so. Linford Christie, Don Quarrie and Frankie Fredericks have all defied advancing years to achieve great things in athletics sprints and Foster lives in hope he can emulate them in the pool.
To that end, Colin Jackson, who won a European sprint hurdles gold at the age of 35 last summer, has been recruited by Foster to try to provide the cutting edge. The 110m hurdles world record-holder is now retired from athletics but busier than ever. He has, nonetheless, been helping Foster since last summer’s Commonwealth Games.
“Even among the athletes Colin was a notoriously hard taskmaster and perfectionist, but that’s exactly what I need right now,” says Foster, who was disappointed with his bronze medal in Manchester. “That’s what made him great and gave him a career at the very top that lasted for 17 years. He never stinted, he did what was required.
“I owe it to myself and Colin to put the work in. Let’s face it, he could be doing all sorts with his time, commercial opportunities, personal appearances and the like. If he’s willing to give up an afternoon, the pressure is on to make sure I put in some high-quality training. After the Commonwealth Games I put it to him that I still want to win big medals, but I needed help with the conditioning. He accepted the challenge. He can’t swim for toffee — he makes Eric the Eel look world class — but he has promised to get me in Olympic medal shape.
“We’ve put in some serious high-quality gym work and flat-out track sessions typically consist of ten 80-metre interval sprints and an ‘eyeballs-out’ 250m to finish with. I could feel the difference almost immediately. My recovery times are much better and I’m stronger.
There was a time when the independently minded Foster was considered something of a problem athlete. Now he is the senior statesman, mellow and laid back, content to make waves only in the pool.
“Who knows exactly how long I have left in swimming' I’m aiming for the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games but the end is somewhere over the horizon, that’s for sure. ”