Great Britain Olympic Trials, London, Day 8 finals:
Francesca Halsall admitted to being speechless for the first time in her life tonight after sending smoke off the waters at the London Aquatics Centre with the fastest 50m freestyle time ever by a woman in a textile suit.
The pool commentary roared “fastest in the world this year” but missed Halsall’s high tide: not since Dutch sprint diva Inge De Bruijn stormed to Olympic victory with a generation-busting blast back at Sydney 2000 has a woman clocked 24.13sec.
“For the first time in my life I’m actually speechless,” said Halsall, who at her best looks like the aquatic equivalent of an Aston Martin searing through a hydrodynamic test tunnel, jets of water flying off the tips off her fingers, fast-forward the only gear.
After matching De Bruijn, Halsall noted that she had shed the pink Arena CarbonPro “fun” suit she wore for the 100m here at trials in favour of a grey “game on suit” of the same model that spoke of sober, serious intent.
Had she realised she had matched De Bruijn’s standard setter? “Wow,” came the reply. “I knew coming into this meet, I was swimming fast. After the 100m, 53.5, I was disappointed. I knew I could do so much more, so to come to the last day of the meet and do that... I’m blown away. I thought I could definitely get 24.5 but 24.1.”
Halsall’s voice cracked, emotions high on the potential of a moment that humbled the protagonist. Not normally one to hold back on any superlative that comes to mind, Halsall managed only: “I’m just so happy.”
She then revealed that back in 2004, when she was selected for Britain’s Smart Track squad of supertalents, she bought two gold fish: Inge, named after De Bruijn, and Thorpey, after the Australian bigfoot of freestyle. Their fate was similar to the one she has in store for De Bruijn’s textile mark: “My mum accidentally killed them - their scales fell off.”
Silver medallist over 100m at the world championships in Rome back in 2009 when booster bodysuits since banned were the order of the day, the 22-year-old coached by Ben Titley at the British Gas Loughborough Intensive Training Centre had never posed a serious threat to the very pointy end of speed among the one-lap medal merchants of dash.
Her effort tonight in the pool she will return to for five events (50m, 100m freestyle, 100m butterfly and two relays) at a home Olympic Games come July was just 0.02sec shy of her best effort in an X-Glide one of the polyurethane suits that buoyed 50m speed by half a second or more and left the record books a target for a future generation after FINA voted for a return to textile-only apparel that left swimming to swimmers not suits from January 1, 2010.
The world record is held at 23.73 by Germany's Britta Steffen from that Roman ruination of a sport.
Catching up with the fast flow of suit-enhanced performance is proving tricky - Ryan Lochte the only swimmer so far to get past the speed of shiny in a long-course pool since the drop in 2010. Halsall is but a fingernail shy of conquering the past. She put some of her new speed down to racing against a wave in a static flume in Tenerife on a training camp over winter and learning a trick or two from the analysis that flowed.
It all augurs well for the 100m too when she got the balance and pace right for the summer, doesn't it? “I think so, definitely,” said Halsall, who in 2010 became the most successful British swimmer in European championship history with five medals. All the training I’ve been doing is pointing towards it. It’s kind of nice that it didn’t come out here at trials because there’s not so much of a target on my back but heading into the summer I’m full of confidence now. I can’t wait.”
Loughborough celebrated a second qualifier for London 2012, Amy Smith taking silver inside the cut on a lifetime best of 24.80. The bronze went to the baby of the Great Britain team, Jessica Lloyd, 16 and on 25.69, a time 0.41 shy of Halsall's best at 16.
A measure of progress: