London 2012: Stockport Olympians ready for London

By Matt SlaterBBC sports news reporter

It is often said that one of golf's unique selling points is the idea that the average hacker can play the same courses as the stars.

He may need a mate on the committee, and it will probably cost him, but Joe Public can - provided he owns the right trousers, of course - stride the exact same fairways as Rory McIlroy, albeit not at the same time.

But you can, for a very small fee, swim in exactly the same water, at exactly the same time, as Britain's most successful swimming team. Stockport's Grand Central Pools is the place, and it may just be British sport's best-kept secret.

The town, historically part of Cheshire, has been swallowed by the southward sprawl of Manchester, but it can still lay claim to a few unique selling points of its own: a famous viaduct (once the largest brick building in the world), a history of hat-making and Manchester City's relatively recent nemesis, Stockport County.

The football side, sadly, have run into difficulties of late, but a new team has emerged to carry the town's sporting colours and that team is Stockport Metro.

Five members of the team have already qualified to compete at London 2012, with a couple more hopeful of joining them, and they go to the Games buoyed by the knowledge that Metro swimmers have won more Olympic medals for Britain than any other club.

The team's roll of honour is prominently displayed on the wall at the deep end, and it is clear the current crop of contenders see themselves as part of a tradition. But there is more to what is so clearly working in Stockport than habit.

"Where champions grow" is the club's unofficial motto, which suggests a focus on developing talent that was obvious when I visited the pool one morning this week to interview the should-be-more-famous five.

In lanes one through four were much the same people you would find in swimming pools up and down the land: ladies who launch, triathletes in training and peaceful paddlers.

But in lanes five through eight were some of the best swimmers in the world, swimmers like double world champion and Olympic favourite Keri-Anne Payne.

No sooner was their time up, though, than the lane ropes came out, the 50m pool was split into two areas and Swim Tots took over.

Within 10 minutes of an Olympic training session finishing, the Grand Central Pools were abuzz with children, one of whom was Evie Goddard, not yet four but already eager to swim like her dad James, a man who has won medals at the Commonwealth Games, European Championships and World Championships, but not yet at an Olympics. He will try again in eight weeks' time.

For Goddard, there is nowhere else on earth he would rather prepare for a final tilt at Michael Phelps and co than Stockport, a place where everybody is made to feel like they are part of a family.

"I think it is to do with how everybody is integrated here - from the youngsters learning to swim, to us guys trying to win medals," said Goddard, at 29 the oldest member of the British swimming team.

"There is a feeling of togetherness and I love it."

The importance of a happy camp was also mentioned by Sophie Allen, who like Goddard has just returned from the European Championships in Hungary with a silver medal for the 200m individual medley in her luggage. These medals, incidentally, were good enough to put Stockport Metro 14th on the table, ahead of Russia and Ukraine.

So good vibes are part of the recipe, but they can only take you so far in elite sport.

Stockport Metro's success was recognised by the sport's national governing body, British Swimming, in 2008, when it made the club one of its five British Gas-sponsored Intensive Training Centres (ITCs).

To be considered for ITC status, you need a 50-metre pool that is available to Team GB contenders for at least 25 hours a week. In return, you get additional funding, money that Stockport has spent on coaching, technical kit and improved gym facilities.

So not only are the intangibles right at Stockport, but the human and material infrastructure of a world-class training base is in place.

To give just one example, the session I watched was more about quality than quantity, which is why there was a large TV behind the diving blocks for the swimmers to get instant feedback on their strokes from an underwater camera.

"The support that we get from our coaches, nutritionists, sports scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, physios, all that kind of stuff, is just amazing," said Payne, who has dominated the gruelling 10km open water event over the last three years.

"I wouldn't say there is a better facility anywhere in the country - or around the world, actually - than we have here. It's the team, the coaches and all the support staff, who sort out problems before they even happen, that make this place so special."

London 2012 has not been an easy sell to the rest of the country since the capital won the right to stage the Games in 2005. "What is it in for us?" has been a common complaint from Britons outside the M25.

But as the Torch Relay is so joyfully demonstrating, that is changing, and nowhere is the link between nation and the Games stronger than in Team GB itself. British success in London this summer will be made in places like Stockport.