Welsh swimming will plunge into 2020 with two familiar faces leading the way, but reasons for optimism that results and performances in 2019 suggest new names are on the near horizon as Graham Thomas reports.
Georgia Davies and Alys Thomas may be defying age as well as the traditional perceptions of swimmers, but there are plenty of rising Welsh stars following in their slipstream.
The recent Welsh Winter National Short Course Championships proved the point with a host of eye-catching performances from the next generation.
Not so long ago, teenagers seemed to be the dominant force in the sport, but Davies and Thomas – who are both 29 – have proved that peak years have been stretched far further in the opposite direction.
Thomas grabbed gold in the 200m butterfly at the 2018 Commonwealth Games with one of the swims of her life, and was fifth in last year’s world championships, while Davies won gold in the 50m backstroke at the 2018 European championships and, like her Wales teammate, has reached world class standard as she approaches her 30th birthday.
Wales’ leading two female swimmers went their separate ways in December. Davies raced at the recent European Short Course Championships in Glasgow, and won bronze in the 100m backstroke, while Thomas loosened up by making an appearance at those Welsh championships in Swansea.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas was queen in her own kingdom, winning four events and producing a new lifetime best in the 200m freestyle.
Dan Jervis – Wales’ leading male swimmer – also took the chance to find some home comforts by winning the 1500m freestyle in what promises to be a huge Olympic year for the Resolven-born swimmer, following his self-confessed “buckling” at the world championships in July.
Behind the top trio, the three-day Swansea meeting also offered opportunities for Welsh stars of tomorrow – such as Matt Richards, Lewis Fraser, Kyle Booth, Joe Small, Elena Morgan and Medi Harris – to show their progress.
For Swim Wales national performance director Ross Nicholas, the domestic short course championships are all about checking on the nuts and bolts, rather than pressing engines to their max.
“With the Olympics coming, the pressure will rise as the months go on,” says Nicholas. “So, at this time of year we tend to keep it fairly low profile.
“I am looking at the depth of our junior swimmers, what we have got coming through and who’s starting to step up. We have one eye on the Commonwealth Games 2022 and beyond.
“It is also a good gauge, early in the season, as to where some of the other athletes are at – particularly in the execution of their processes. That’s probably more what we look at, rather than the overall result.
“We are looking at their technical ability and the goals we have set them. We monitor and track them throughout the year.”
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to try out diving with @SwimWales last year. It was so far outside my comfort zone and I was petrified but I absolutely loved it! Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and try something new in 2020, you might just love it! pic.twitter.com/MY2s0OV961
— Jazz Carlin (@JazzCarlin) January 3, 2020
For a swimmer like Jervis, still only 23, tightening some of those bolts should mean he’s a highly-tuned machine come Olympic selection next year.
“That’s the thing is that is going to move them forward. Dan Jervis, his clear technical goal is his ability to plant his feet on the wall and drive off and streamline at the level he’s going to need to be at to compete against the best guys in the world this year.
“That’s probably where he loses about 0.3 seconds on every turn to the top guys in the world. So, it’s process-focused. Where are they at, technically and physically? In saying that, I was pretty pleased with what I saw across the board.”
The championships – watched by around 1,000 spectators at Wales’ National Pool – produced five Welsh records. Among those making their mark was Harris, the 17-year-old Swim Gwynedd athlete who took a hat-trick of titles in the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events.
The European Junior Championship finalist produced a personal best of 59.91 in the 100m backstroke – the first time she had dipped under the one minute barrier.
Nicholas adds: “What’s most pleasing from my perspective is we are starting to see real depth developed in the junior age groups.
“Traditionally, being a small nation, we have had one or two good juniors. But we are now seeing a much larger group of juniors who are not just competitive with each other, but are competitive at British national level.
“We have a host who are ranked top four or five in GB. That provides us with a much bigger talent pool. But the transition to elite senior competition is getting tougher because people are staying around in the sport for much longer.”
With Richards – a European junior champion this year in the 100m freestyle – Harris and Booth now all moving from junior to senior level, they will soon be competing regularly with swimmers who have been around as long as evergreens Thomas and Davies.
That, says, Nicholas, is not only something they will have to get used to, but a situation all young swimmers are going to have face as older competitors find new ways to stay fit, healthy and financially rewarded for their time.
“It’s because of changes in sports science and medicine, but also it’s down to the introduction of some pretty good pay days for some of the top athletes,” says the former Wales and Great Britain international.
“The age range among medalists now in international swimming is huge. You can go from 15-year-olds to swimmers in their early 30s. It’s incredible.
“There’s more money to stay in it for longer if you can stay fit. It’s a viable long-term career.”