Not often down the past 50 years… hold on. Never in the past 50 years has a British sprinter topped the world 100m freestyle rankings after most of the world’s leading nations have fired at global trials and championships.
Duncan Scott just did it in a multi-pioneering blast that lasted 47.90 seconds and granted the 19-year-old a ticket to the World Championships as the first Brit inside 48sec a year beyond two silver medals in relays at the Rio Olympic Games. (You can watch the race in the British Swimming You Tube of day 3 finals at the foot of this article)
Take a gander at Scott in Sheffield at British Championships this week. You’ll notice he’s got very little meat on his bones. Michael Phelps noticed it last year when he emerged from the 4x200m freestyle relay, another gold in his hand, to make a point of taking Scott by the hand and shaking it in very sincere fashion.
The most decorated Olympian all-time – 23 golds and 28 medals in all – had long been a keen observer of his sport. In Scott he had noticed skill and speed and something missing: muscle. What, he wondered could this kid do when his bones got padded with power? The American named three Brits in his various plaudits for the next gen in his many chats with the media in Rio last year: Adam Peaty, obviously, James Guy and … Scott. Good spot from a man who clocked a best of 49.00 at the same age as Scott is now, 19, back in 2005 (and then went faster 11 times in his career, four of those efforts in shiny suits).
Scott’s got gains in him yet, too.
Coached by Steven Tigg at the University of Stirling, Scott was out in 23.14, back in 24.76. That put him 0.01sec inside the target time for Budapest world titles in July, the same smallest margin possible in the pool ahead of Cameron McEvoy, the Aussie who holds the crown for fastest man ever in a textile suit, at the helm of the world rankings, and inside his own 48.01sec British standard set for fifth place in the Olympic final.
Matthew Kidd was the first British man to race inside 50sec. That was only 16 years ago, when he swam 49.84 at the Universiade that year. The 49sec barrier fell in 2005, when Simon Burnett clocked 48.68 at British nationals. A year on he made world No1 on the ranks but swam in a year of no world titles, no Olympics and no major trials swum before he swam. It was Burnett’s standard of 48.20 from the Beijing 2008 4x100m free relay lead-off in the first season of shiny suits, that Scott cracked in Rio last year.
The 47 realm is where it is now at. Kyle Chalmers, the Australian Olympic champion at 18 last year on 47.58 has a 48.20 to his name this season. There’s no sense in direct remote comparison of the clock beyond the general steer the rankings provide as they fill the book of historic trend and speed but no doubting what kind of company Scott is ready to keep. Much more in the McEvoy than the Chalmers mould, physically, he tops the 2017 global pace-setters, so far:
Men 100M Freestyle
GBR , 19
AUS , 23
USA , 28
AUS , 18
JPN , 23
You have to go back to the 1960s to find a Brit with the promise of doing damage to the very best over two long-course laps freestyle. Bobby McGregor, another Scot at that, took silver in the 1964 Olympic final in Tokyo (and finished fourth four years on in Mexico).
Tokyo comes into view once more. Three years out. Much work and many a meet to get through before that but Scott, who boasts the best three and 4/5 of the swiftest 100m times among Brits all-time, looks to be in a very good place. He had given warning of a certain state of sharpness when he eased right off in the last 25m of the 100m freestyle heats at Sheffield but still stopped the clock at 48.5 this morning.
In a light-hearted moment, Bill Sweetenham, the Australian in charge of the British team between late 2000 and 2007, said that Scots tended to punch above their weight in world waters because of their “feral gene, the braveheart factor”. He had a smile on his face but he wasn’t joking.
Scott comes across as mild-mannered, his neck well in and on dry land you struggle to see punch coming when he takes to the water. We saw it in junior international waters, then at his senior debut for Scotland at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games as a boy among men. Last year, the man started to show as he picked up silvers in the 4x200m free and the 4x100m medley relays with Britain teammates to add to his terrific solo efforts.
That admiration from Phelps was mutual. Asked who he had looked up to down the years, Scott said:
“It changed over the years who I looked up to. I definitely looked up to Michael Phelps – in 2008 I was 11 so I was watching the Olympics looking at him. Then it went to Robbie Renwick (Britain and Scotland 4x200m teammate who was a member of the GBR world champions of Kazan 2015) and I ended up training with him 2014/15 and then 2015/16, that helped a lot. He was a sort of mentor – I used to look up to him but then it was quite weird swimming with him and becoming friends with him.”
And then there’s the coach:
“My coach Steven Tigg I look up to quite a lot, I’ve been with him for about 10 years. He is very professional, he analyses the little things a lot and is always looking to change and develop my swimming. I get on really well with him.”
Tigg ticked all the boxes for Scott, who told SwimVortex’s Liz Byrnes at Ponds Forge:
“His planning over the last couple of years has been phenomenal. I’ve been with the same coach now since I was about nine, 10 so the consistency, the general gradual improvements I think it goes hand in hand with what he is trying to do with me but also what we are doing together. It’s the end of an Olympic cycle and the start of a new one so yes, I swam fast there but there isn’t really any need and if people aren’t swimming fast it doesn’t really matter. There is still plenty of time to swim fast and that is the aim at the end of the day.”
So, fastest in the world so far this year? Pragmatic and feet firmly rooted, Scott said:
“That’s obviously great and I am delighted with that but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean anything. People go in ranked 10th, 11th and come away with golds at worlds so it doesn’t mean anything – if anything it is a burden to carry. I am not too bothered: I am happy and I think it is the first time I have ever achieved that so that is something else to put in my mum’s trophy cabinet. A year after Olympic year maybe people are taking their foot off the gas but yeah, happy with it at the end of the day.”
The proof of the pudding will be in the Budapest eating and Scott said he’s not even approaching the world titles thinking of prizes in the company of many who have swum faster than his new best:
“I am 19! I have never been in this position before and there are people out there – in fact there’s going to be more than 10 people out there in the world who have gone faster than that in their career – so I am in no position to say the gold medal at worlds is around my neck, if to say any medal or even the final.”
Spot on: Scott is now 16th fastest all-time in textile, with 10 of the 15 ahead of him still in the hunt. The game was ahead of him – and there was everything to play for.
Said Scott: “Everyone in the world needs to fight for every single place and the 100m is short, it’s fast, and it’s competitive. There is no way to say I am in a safe place or even to try and go for gold – I am just looking for my self-improvement and one thing at a time, I have still got a couple of events here to do. I am not really going to think about it until after trials. I have got more events to do: it is just the beginning of the week for me.”
Scott felt part of a growing success story, a wave of confidence and results building in the Great Britain camp. He said:
“Since I stepped on to the Great Britain team they have been doing really well – people likes Adam, James, Siobhan. I am absolutely delighted with the British record – it’s a bonus on top of the win. I wasn’t really thinking about the time (during the race) – more about the little processes. It is a field that has been lacking in Britain in recent years so it is good to see it improve and great to share the podium with two other Scots.”
The race today, of course, didn’t quite end at Scott – and it was Scottish programs that swept the podium, Edinburgh University’s Jack Thorpe and Kieran McGuckin on 49.65 and 49.68, Bath’s Calum Jarvis on 49.80 and the race gone without Ben Proud, who seeks selection for the dash and would then be in line for the 100m in a relay should Britain place one on the Budapest blocks this July.
Day 3 finals, including Scott’s blast…
Towards the end of the tape…
Anna Hopkin Tests 25 Mark, Siobhan Chasing
The other sprint freestyle final of the night was the women’s 50m freestyle. Fran Halsall, alas, is gone. The next wave is keen to step up. Anna Hopkin, of Ealing, stopped the clock at 25.07 for a solid win, the Olympic 200IM silver medallist, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, of Bath University, honing her sprint freestyle at 25.28 as part of her efforts to catch Katinka Hosszu one day after having given the Hungarian a scare in the race that looked her safest bet for gold in Rio and turned into a much closer affair than anyone had imagined it might. The dash bronze in Sheffield went to Edinburgh University’s Lucy Hope in 25.42.