Five days, four swims, and three British records were the result of James Hickman's dip into the World Cup series. This came after a three-week training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, Australia.
The trip down under proved invaluable to the 20-year-old Hickman, who finished seventh in the 200 butterfly at the Atlanta Olympic Games. Before the Games, he admits, "I did not feel part of the world scene," but when he qualified for the final, "I knew I was in the top ten."
On the first of January, James flew to Australia with nine other elite British swimmers. The squad was based on those who reached the A or B final in Atlanta. Missing were Britain's only two medallists from the Games. Graeme Smith, bronze medallist in the 1500, had university exams, while Paul Palmer, silver medallist in the 400, had already booked a skiing holiday.
But for James, the trip dispelled the myth that the Aussies train harder and that the AIS had something no other centre had. He found that the only thing the AIS had over his own set-up was all the resources in one location. As far as training harder, the Australians, he found, "don't train any harder than we do! I am satisfied we are on the right track." By "we" he means his Stockport metro teammates under the guidance of Dave Calleja.
Content in the knowledge that "the work from Canberra was in the bag," James tackled his first World Cup meet in Glasgow with great vigour. A little too enthusiastically perhaps, for in the 200 butterfly he set a very hot pace and struggled to maintain the momentum. But his efforts were rewarded with victory in a British best of 1:55.35, 0.22 seconds faster than his British record set 12 months earlier.
His second record came the following day in the 100 butterfly, where despite having to settle for second best, his time of 52.34 was 0.69 seconds faster than the time he recorded at the British Championships in December.
James journeyed to Gelsenkirchen for the Arena Festival with a different plan in mind. He set out much slower, which was made all the more obvious when Denis Pankratov, Russia's double Olympic champion, admitted after his world record-breaking performance, "Today, I started a little too fast."
James was happy with his two 200 swims. "All I've got to do is put the first half from Glasgow with the second half from here," adding "I don't think that's unrealistic. I'm not saying it's easy."
The second day of competition in Germany saw James celebrate his twenty-first birthday, but perhaps not in the way he would have wished. He thought he had an unexpected birthday present when Denis Pankratov was disqualified in the heats of the 100 butterfly for a false start in this one-start-rule event. The Olympic champion out of the way, James' hopes lifted, but he was in for a surprise in the shape of Konstantin Ushkov, a training partner of Denis in Voldegrad. At 19, Ushkov is nearly two years younger than James. Konstantin Ushkov had shown good form the day before, winning the 50 butterfly, pushing the world record-holder, Mark Foster, into the runner-up spot. But no one had any idea what was in store.
Using the Pankratov underwater leg kick, Konstantin surfaced just one stroke before the turn. His final time of 52.26 shaved 0.08 seconds off the European record set by James Hickman in Glasgow.
Trying not to show his disappointment at losing his record, James still felt "I am a person who can break a world record. I go home a very happy person. I've been around the world, swam against the best in the world, and now I'm in their league." He issued a warning to those who hope to be amongst the medals at the World Short Course Championships: "In Gothenburg I'm expecting to go 51 low or 50 high." They had better believe him, or they could be in for a big disappointment.