Fran Halsall believes that this is a golden era for British women's swimming. "I think it is special what we have in our team right now," Halsall says. "I have been lucky to grow up with pretty much all the girls who are making the team and swimming really fast. Since we were 13, 14, we've all been together on camps and things. We are doing well and swimming fast and it does feel like a golden era." What Halsall is too modest to say is that she is one of the brightest lights.
This summer Halsall will compete in five different Olympic disciplines, and has a chance of winning a medal in each and every one. She is ranked second in the world in the 50m freestyle, third in the 100m freestyle, and fifth in the 100m butterfly. She could also be part of two relays, the 4x100m freestyle and the 4x100m medley.
At the age of 22, Halsall could be on the cusp of achieving the kind of fame that will shape the rest of her life. She is a witty woman, a star waiting to be discovered. Not that she is craving the attention. "When I start talking about the Olympics a lot I think about it a lot and I don't want to do that," she says. "It is nice to have people want to listen to what you have to say, but when I am not around it I just go and be Fran and stroke my cats at home on my own."
Halsall has two of them, a big ginger tom called Banks and a "crazy, pretty little thing" called Bella. She used to have a dog called Roma too, but it was packed off to live with her parents because the three beasts were causing such a ruckus. She and her boyfriend, the GB hockey player Alastair Wilson, do a better job of co-exisiting than her pets did. Though Halsall admits that she did get a little jealous when the Duchess of Cambridge turned up to one of GB hockey's training sessions. "He met her, and he said she was very pretty," she says with mock indignation. "I was like 'Oi, oi!'"
Halsall is going to have a gruelling Games. She could find herself taking part in four events on the first day of competition. "Yeah," she says with a rueful chuckle, "It is going to be a tough first day but once it's out of the way, hopefully if all goes to plan I have got my 100m fly final and after that I have got two days off before my freestyle events. So I have got to get them done and recover properly in between. That's the key definitely."
For a swimmer with such a heavy workload, Halsall can be unusually frail. She came down with food poisoning at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and by her own admission she underperformed at the world championships in Shanghai last year because she made such a mess of her diet. "I'm all about feel," she explains. "I like to feel good and high in the water. And with my events you have to feel really strong in them. The 100m and the 50m are all about power. You have to feel strong, and when we were in China and Shanghai I lost quite a lot of weight because I wasn't eating right."
During those world championships Halsall's weight dropped to 58kg, whereas she usually races at 60-61kg. "I just didn't eat enough, because I didn't like it," she says. "It wasn't what I was used to. And I didn't eat enough of what I should have to fuel myself for my race."
She will not have that problem in London, partly because her support team are putting so much effort into getting her diet plan right, and partly because the food will be a lot more familiar. Her mind is already racing ahead to what might be on offer for the athletes in the Olympic village. "In China they had a duck roll stand in the village, and we were wondering whether they'll have a fish and chip stand in London. Or bangers and mash. How cool what that be? Not that I'd eat it before a race," she adds quickly.
It is not just the nutritionists Halsall has been working with since Shanghai. The world championships were a traumatic experience for her. She finished fourth in the 100m freestyle, despite having qualified fastest for the final. It was as close as she came to a medal there.
Since then she has been talking to the psychologist Simon Middlemas about her performance. "He said, 'Well you've had that experience now, you know what it feels like to be put up on a pedestal to win and then not win. That's happened and nothing ridiculously bad has happened because of that so, what are you complaining about?'"
"The worst has happened," Halsall says. "It's taken the scariness out of it. The scare factor has gone. I came fourth – the worst position to come – out of lane four in a world championship final — and I am still here and still smiling."
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