Britain's Olympic swimming team has received a warm welcome at its pre-Games camp in Osaka, Japan, though there is one team member for whom circumstances have not been kind: at trials in March, Jess Sylvester booked a berth on the 4x100m freestyle by finishing fourth in the solo final, and then enjoyed the whole tour of the poolside parade of team members, the bonding sessions, the kit-collection day and the journey east - only to be told that she may not get a race during the Games.
The writing was on the wall, perhaps, but the blow to Sylvester is no less real and difficult to deal with. The trials solo 100m final back in April went without Mel Marshall, who had been disqualified for failing to register in the ready room on time. Personally, I felt the issue could have been handled in a much better way at trials, in a way that allowed Marshall to compete and finish top four. Had she done so and swum close to best, Sylvester would have been fifth but the combined times would have placed her on the team as a reserve and everyone would have known their place, free of blurred edges.
As things turned out, Sylvester made the grade outright and Marshall was told to leave the deck at trials and that decision was then backed up by an official statement, in which Marshall was asked to provide a quote that supported the official line. 'Mea culpa ... should have known better,' etc was the line. Lesson learned and all that. There were valid reasons for the lesson, central to those being that swimmers should prepare as often as possible for the biggest of occasions, when there is no room for mistakes.
That message does not fit in with the notion that Marshall should now race in the 4x100m free relay in Beijing but it does fit in with the notion that any swimming nation worth its salt must do its utmost to field the best team possible in what are seriously competitive waters.
Let's be clear: Britain's 4x100m freestyle relay is likely to be faster with Marshall in it, her pb some 1.5sec up on Sylvester's. The performance choice, under a policy that allows any member already selected for the team to be shuffled on to relays should such a move be deemed in Britain's best interests, was never in doubt.
But there is room to sympathise with Sylvester, who has been offered a time trial in the Olympic pool to see where she stands against the times of those ahead of her on paper. There is fairness in that process, of course, but Sylvester must surely feel as if she is being punished for someone else's mistake. A source close to the swimmer told SwimNews: 'At just 21 Jess could be part of Britain's relay teams for years to come, and challenge for an individual place in the team as we prepare for 2012. At the moment she is devastated and completely disillusioned.'
Sylvester returned to training this morning after breaking the news to her family that they may not see her in action because of the decision to include Marshall in the count for the relay. It was an emotional moment for all concerned. Handling and timing of such matters is important to team morale and there is now a job to be done on both sides. Sylvester must, for her own sake (to ensure that she gets the best possible out of her first Olympic experience) as well as that of her teammates, look at the glass half full not half empty, as hard as that is sometimes, while team staff and management must make the swimmer feel like a full member of a team that she was selected for.
British Swimming issued the following statement to SwimNews: 'Great Britain will select its fastest swimmers from the 2008 rankings to date to contest the heats of the Olympic Women's 4x100m freestyle relay. 'The decision to swim a different quartet to the top four finishers from the Women's 100m freestyle final at the Olympic trials has been made on a performance basis to achieve the best result possible and is clearly supported by the selection policy in place.' British Swimming National Performance Director Michael Scott explained: 'We have to select what we see on paper as the best team in order to maximise the performance outcomes for Great Britain which include podium performances as well as finalists.'
The statement continued: '... in accordance with the selection policy the final make-up of any relay team can comprise of any athlete selected on to the swimming team for the Beijing Olympics. The British Swimming selection policy clearly states that no guarantees are given to a swimmer of a relay place on the Olympic team. Nominations and final make-up of the relay teams are made at the discretion of the National Performance Director and GB Head Women's Coach Ben Titley.' And they must account for the results.
Scott added: 'These are always difficult decisions to make given the commitment that both the athlete and coach have made to their training programme. However, in all instances the goal is to get the best performance for the team in Beijing.'
That process has been helped by the conditions in which the Britain team is being hosted. David Davies, Olympic and world bronze medallist in the 1,500m freestyle, said that the 'amount of support and hospitality that has been shown to us has been quite extraordinary. We've been made to feel very welcome and upon arrival people have gone out of their way to make sure the team have everything they need.' The Osaka Pool, which has indoor 25m and 50m facilities and an open-air 25m pool also earns praise from Davies, contender in the 1,500m and the inaugural 10km marathon. 'The facilities we've managed to secure for the holding camp in Japan are fantastic and it's such a warm and welcoming place which helps everyone to relax and focus on things. It's a great place to relax and chill out before the hustle and bustle of the Games. There is still work to be done but it's about growing that team unity as well as finishing off your own preparations.'
Davies is happy with where he is: 'My events are at the back end of the programme so for me the holding camp is slightly different. I've still got quite a bit of training left to do but everything is falling into place. It's a really exciting time at the moment, the Olympics are nearly here and we're all desperate to race. This camp helps to keep all that emotion and urgency in check while defining how we will function and perform as a team.'