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On Monday 23rd December 1996 RISHTON student Stacey Houldsworth recorded her fastest ever time in the 200 metres freestyle heats of the British Open championships at Sheffield.

But it was only enough to give the 15-year-old Borough of Burnley swimmer a reserve place for the final.

Stacey, born in 1981, qualified in fine style for the final of the 800 metres heats, in which she finished seventh - only a fraction of a second separating 4th and 7th places around the 8:54 minutes mark.

Disappointingly, her time of 8:54.73 was a couple of seconds slower than her qualifying mark.

Unfortunately, her lane was the one randomly selected for drugs testing, and this long drawn out process put at least two and a half hours on proceedings.

Her performance may have been better but for a freak injury.

Coach Alan Moorhouse, said: "Stacey got her foot caught in the pads which operate the electronic timing system during the warm-up for the 200.

"Despite not being able to push off properly, she scraped home to qualify for the 400m, but could not swim in the final."

FLANKED by a stony-faced official and looking for all intents and purposes like she was about to complete a citizen's arrest, the stranger approached with menace. Head down, Stacey Houldsworth initially ignored the purposefully-striding duo until they marched right into her path.

Looking up, she could guess what they were about but wasn't sure. In an instant her suspicions were confirmed when the smaller of the two stated forcefully: "Could you accompany us please to a room where we have been instructed to carry out a drugs test". Or to put it another way, welcome to the world of big time swimming.

"I wasn't even able to have my swim-down afterwards to get rid of all the lactic acid (the fluid that builds up in the blood, causing fatigue in muscles)," recalled 15-year-old Stacey from Great Harwood after being pulled aside for a drugs test while competing in the national short-course championships in Sheffield where she came seventh in the 800m freestyle. The next day I couldn't swim - my arms and legs just wouldn't move. So not only had I to do the test, I suffered because of it."

"The actual test, of course, can be an ordeal. "If you can't give your sample there and then, someone has to follow you. "So when you change, you're watched. "You can't go anywhere without them following you. "It's embarrassing having someone following you around all the time. "To prevent swimmers using performance-enhancing substances, however, testing is vitally important.

"I would never touch drugs. "If you can't achieve your goals without them, it's not worth it. It would take away the buzz from winning."

Talking with Stacey this week during lunch hour at Norden High School in Rishton, it was difficult to reconcile her self-assuredness, and the ease with which she talked about her aspirations, with the fact that she is just 15.

Her demeanour was more reminiscent of someone in their mid-20s and her confidence while being interviewed handsomely surpassed the hesitation displayed by two older and more experienced sportsmen who declined the opportunity to talk with this reporter for separate stories this week.

Swimming, and her natural aptitude for it, she says has made her a more assured person, helping her overcome the reticence that characterised her early childhood. Maturity, of course, has to be reached early for any successful swimmer for they will reach their peak by the time they're 22.

"Usually, the great swimmers show early," advised Derek Snelling, swimming's national performance director whose measured North American drawl - he has spent the last 30 years in Canada - disguises his Darwen upbringing. "The superstar girl will show by 12. "

"The next thing is the late developer who is perhaps not being pushed by those on the local scene or is suffering from reduced pool time due to limited facilities. My constant advice to youngsters is to keep going until you find your limit and that's when you've got to be careful and sensible. But that limit increases year by year. Good athletes push themselves harder, further, longer."

"And they must be willing to do this to find out what's truly within them. In this country, the outstanding swimmers are doing 50 per cent less than their counterparts in countries like the United States and Canada. We have a problem with facilities in Great Britain but for our swimmers to reach their true potential they must consider all the options. There are 1,500 swimming clubs in the country and talent in every one.

"Each club has the potential to produce a star. "Out of all of them, however, only about 20 are structured to provide sufficient pool time. For talented swimmers in this country it is difficult for them to know when they're arriving at the next level of challenge."

Stacey has no doubt that it's now. Her goal is to compete in the Millennium Olympics in Sydney in three years, by which time Snelling intends to have established Britain as "the number one nation".

Some suggest he would have to fatten up a family of ducks to achieve that.  But Stacey maintains that the aim is realistic. "If you've got the determination, and the talent's there, there's nothing you can't do if you set your mind to it," she said emphatically.

Such steadfast belief can be traced to the influence exerted by Stacey's parents, particularly dad Willy whose guidance can at times reach suffocating proportions. If it weren't for them convincing me I could do things and keeping me going I probably wouldn't be swimming now," Stacey readily admits.

"They tell me I can do it and convince me that I can. "Coach Alan Moorhouse also keeps me going. "But sometimes it can go to far, particularly with my dad. "I think he expects too much of me sometimes "He puts me under a lot of pressure. I know he only wants the best for me. "But he can get a bit overbearing at times."

Striking a balance between the encouragement that is necessary and pushing too hard is a parent's dilemma in all areas of life but is at its most acute when they have a child talented at sport. But for mum, Stacey might never have been in swimming in the first place.

Formative experiences poolside resulted in more water streaming down Stacey's face than streaming over the rest of her. Initial reluctance to get in the pool gradually subsided, but resistance to becoming a competitive member of the local club didn't.

Stacey wanted to swim competitively about as much as the pet Labrador wishes to be doused under the hose. "I was only six and I wasn't very confident," she recalled.

"I remember my mum taking me in and saying, 'Right, there's a man there called George, your normal swim coach isn't here today'. "So I got in the water and he asked me, 'Can you swim two lengths front crawl?' "I said, 'Course I can.' "He said, 'Then you're a member of Great Harwood Otters'. "I think I climbed straight out of the pool and cried until my mother brought me home."

Since then her rise through the ranks has been meteoric, slowed only by an injury to her ankle in 1995 and a virus she picked up last year. This year she has the added complication of GCSE examinations and preparation for these must be catered for around her training programme.

"It's difficult to have to concentrate on both at the same time, but they're equally important," she conceded. "I just hope that one doesn't affect too badly the other."

The strong suspicion left with this reporter is that swimming would take precedence, but Stacey needn't worry about suffering the consequences in her exams. "She's the type who could turn her hand to anything, even brain surgery if she wanted," observed headmistress Jennifer Halpin as I left the school.

That kind of recommendation augurs well for Sydney 2000

References

Lancashire Evening Telegraph 22 February 1997.