By Cathy Wood

As one of the fastest sprinters in world swimming the last thing you want, when you’re already in the spotlight, is an embarrassing scene from your mother.

For 20-year-old Fran Halsall, the cringe making moment came last summer, at Swimming’s World Championships in Rome, just after the then 19-year-old had won silver in the 100 metres freestyle.

For Mum, Diane, a civil servant from Southport, it was all too much. She began to blub.

"My brother Joe and father, Andrew, had to tell her to shusssh," says Halsall with a laugh.

And who could blame her?  Diane, that is, not Fran.

Not just because of the immense pride she must have felt to see her daughter collect a silver medal as the second best swimmer over 100m freestyle in the world, but because the sprinter might not have been there at all but for the unstinting support of Team Halsall.

Scroll back seven years, to one particularly memorable day in the Halsall household, and you’ll begin to understand why.

The 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was born and brought up in Southport,  was already talented enough to have been spotted by Bill Sweetenham, British Swimming’s then performance director, as one of six or seven young female swimmers who needed to be nurtured towards success in 2012.

But there’s a big difference between being talented and making the Olympic podium and Halsall knew it.

The question she had to work out that day, as she sat with her Dad, was whether she wanted to carry on swimming for fun or take matters to a completely different level.

Since her parents would rise at 5am and then make the 45 minute car journey, in each direction, to the pool any decision would also affect them.

Halsall was unequivocal.

"I really wanted to be Olympic champion. That was my goal in life," she says. "They [my parents] had to make sacrifices too. They could only do that if I was passionate about it."

And when she told her parents her goal their response was equally emphatic. "Let’s do it!" they said.

Today Halsall (pictured) can roll out of bed at the relatively late hour of 6.30am, jump in the car and make the six minute journey from the Loughborough flat she shares with her team mate, Lizzie Simmonds, to the University pool.

Back then she wouldn’t have been at the pool at all if hadn’t been for her parents.

So if Mrs Halsall wanted a good old cry, in front of the world’s watching media, why not?

Halsall wasn’t particularly young when she got her water wings, she was eight when she learnt to swim but excelled quickly and one success followed another.

By the age of 15 she was European Junior champion over 100m freestyle, a feat repeated a year later.

That same year, 2006, she won gold in the 4 x 100m medley relay in the European Championships, her first senior international for Great Britain, and went on to take two silver medals, in both relays, (freestyle and medley) at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

Halsall is, unquestionably, one of the great success stories of the often maligned Bill Sweetenham era.

Sweetenham was the tough, no-nonsense Aussie who arrived as performance director after Britain’s disastrous performance at the Sydney Olympics when they returned without a medal of any colour in any event. And that hadn’t happened for more than 60 years.

Sweetenham shook things up and, in the process, attracted considerable criticism from inside, and outside, the sport.

Halsall had a very different experience and won’t have a word said against the man to whom she, and some of her fellow Great Britain team mates, owe so much.

"He was formidable," she says. "But he was really passionate.

"The things he put in place have done me the world of good, and the other girls. What he did had a great impact because we are all doing pretty well and shooting for medals."

Those things included getting together as a group three times a year where the youngsters got a taste of what world-class swimming was like.

"It opened my eyes," Halsall recalls.

And they also went away to train and race abroad including competing in World Cup tours where they got experience, at a young age, of competing against the best athletes in the world.

"He just wanted what was best for the athletes and some didn’t agree," Halsall says.

"For me he only ever showed compassion. He was always there. He would say to me,  'How are you champ?' He could make you feel like a special individual."

To make her point Halsall identifies some of the other swimmers Sweetenham picked out all those years ago as ones to watch including Lizzie Simmonds, Jemma Lowe and Ellen Gandy.  Like Halsall all will be on the plane to this month’s European Championships in Budapest, which are due to open on Wednesday (August 4).

It’s a city that holds happy memories for Halsall as it was here she won the Junior European 100m freestyle title in 2005 and relay gold in the senior European Championships the following year.

"It was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had," she says about the relay medal. "We didn’t expect to win and, by the time I went in, I was a bit ahead. I had to swim out of my skin to stay ahead.  It was an incredible experience and I shared it with three other people."

After last year’s silver in Rome, Halsall has high expectations of doing as well, if not better in Budapest.

"That was a turning point for me," she explains. "It was the first time, as an individual, I had won a medal in a major championships."

Once Budapest is over, Halsall will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi where she’s targeting six events-  the 100m freestyle and butterfly, 50m freestyle and butterfly and the two relays; the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relay.
She plans to win medals in all.

"I’m not expecting six but I’d like to get six even though that sounds a bit greedy," she says.

She was going for seven events but decided to drop the 200m freestyle relay from an already packed programme fearing it would impact too severely on the other races.

"It’s nice to do lots of events but you want to do them well," she says.

But any chance of Diane and Andrew Halsall being there as witnesses to one, let alone six finals, has already been thrown out the window.

"I’ve opted out of asking them because of what’s going on with security," she says. "I don’t want to be worrying about them when I’m in the pool so I’ve asked them not to come."

"They were a bit upset," she admits.

One person Halsall does intend to see in Delhi though is boyfriend Alastair Wilson who’s in the Great Britain Hockey squad and hopes to be picked to play for England at the Commonwealths.

They met after a party following the Closing Ceremony at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 although, according to Halsall, they "didn’t get it together" for another year.

If Mr and Mrs Halsall have been banned from being part of the action in Delhi they’ve already made it clear they won’t be missing London come what may, even if it means sitting on the 10 metre diving platform to get a proper view.

By the time London does come around, in 2012, Halsall will have both home advantage and years of high level competitive experience including two Commonwealth Games, at least three World Championships, countless European Championships and one Olympic Games.

And she’ll still only be 22 in 2012.  Plenty of time to carry on to Rio if she has the inclination and appetite.

"I’m like a veteran on the team," she jokes. Hardly. 

Veteran or not, her chance of grabbing the biggest prize in world sport is within touching distance.

In fact, two years from now, a young woman from Southport who has known little else but 10 swimming sessions a week, covering more than 50,000 metres in total, month after month, year in, year out could well stand on top of the winner’s rostrum in East London.

And, if that happens, she will lean forward to collect her medal before a sell-out crowd rises as one to hear the national anthem and watch the British flag rise to the highest point.

Be warned: it is likely men and women - and mothers everywhere - may succumb to a jolly good cry.

Cathy Wood was editor of the Daily Mail Ski Magazine before moving to become ski correspondent on the Daily Mail. She later became travel editor before going freelance. She represented Great Britain at elite level triathlon and writes on travel, skiing and sport.