Francesca Halsall (12 April, 1990) is a British freestyle and butterfly swimmer and is one of the most exciting talents in the arena of world swimming.
Such was Halsall’s prodigious potential as a teenager that she won her first cap for England while still only 15, anchoring both the 4 x 100m freestyle and medley relays to silver medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Just over four months later in Budapest she had her first taste of gold in a major international meet when she once again anchored the 4 x 100m medley relay team at the European Championships, managing to hold off Germany’s Britta Steffen, who complimented Francesca on her great swim.
Two years later in Eindhoven, Francesca was the only member of the victorious 2006 Budapest team to swim the 4 x 100m medley relay and successfully defend Great Britain’s European title, this time in a new European record. The following month in Manchester at the 2008 World Short Course Championships, Francesca enjoyed her first success as an individual on the world stage by winning silver in the 100m freestyle and bronze at the 50m distance. While her 2008 Olympic Games performances did not yield any medals, she gained valuable experience, swimming three finals (out of six events entered), setting British Records in the 100m individual freestyle and as part of the 4 x 100m freestyle relay team, and breaking the European record when swimming the anchor in the 4 x 100m medley relay.
Francesca’s greatest success on the world stage to date came at the 2009 World Championships in Rome where she won silver in the 100m freestyle, beating world and Olympic champion Lisbeth Trickett into third place. She (and her teammates in the relay events) broke British records in all her events – 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 4 x 100m freestyle relay, and 4 x 100m medley relay. Later in the year, she broke the European record in the 100m freestyle twice in the space of 10 days at the Stockholm and Singapore meets of the FINA-Arena World Cup series. She ended the year off in fine style at the Duel in the Pool in Manchester, winning the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, and 100m butterfly, and coming third in 200m freestyle.
If 2009 was a coming of age for Halsall, 2010 was a year of profound confirmation that she is a serious contender at major international events in the freestyle and butterfly sprints. At the European Championships in Budapest in August, she won a gold medal in the 100m freestyle, a silver in the 100m butterfly, and a bronze in the 50m freestyle. As a member of the 4 x 100m medley relay team, she successfully defended the Great Britain European title for the second time, also earning a silver medal as part of the 4 x 100m freestyle team. Her five medals made her the most successful British swimmer ever at a single European Championships.
With much expected of her at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October, Francesca unfortunately succumbed to the notorious ‘Delhi belly’, which left her weak and unable to produce her best. However, she soldiered bravely on, eventually coming home with a “cheeky” gold medal in the 50m butterfly, a silver in the 50m freestyle, a bronze in the 100m freestyle, and silver relay medals for the 4 x 100m freestyle and 4 x 100m medley.
A persistent ankle problem forced Halsall into surgery in late 2010, but it wasn’t enough to stop her collecting the Splash Female Swimmer of the Year Award, The Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year Award, and the Sports Journalists’ Association Presidents Trophy, even if she had to hobble on to the stage on crutches to collect her trophy.
With high hopes for the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Halsall’s performances were world-class, but she finished just agonizingly outside the podium placings, coming fourth in both the 50m and 100m freestyle. Her 100m free semi-final time would have won her the bronze medal in the final.
With the 2012 Olympics in her home country, the pressure was intense for her to perform, and she went into the Games with the year’s second-fastest 50m freestyle time, and as the year’s third-fastest 100m freestyle swimmer. Fran competed in more events than anyone else in Team GB and successfully made the final in four of them, finishing 5th in both the 50m freestyle and the 4×100m freestyle relay, with a blistering 53.29.
“Bubbly.” If one was asked to come up with just a single word to describe Fran Halsall, that would be it. Always smiling, upbeat, and with a seemingly perennial positive attitude, she’s one of the shining lights on the international swimming tour. Aside from her accomplishments in the pool, with her big eyes and infectious laugh, she’s striking and vivacious outside of it as well.
But to restrict her to a single adjective would be doing her an injustice, since several others are indispensable in describing Fran – dedicated, focused, competitive, thoughtful, respectful, disciplined. For instance – how many 13-year-olds would choose to get up at 3:45am for a 5:30am swimming training session, and afterwards, go to school. She may have a rare talent in the pool, but to realize it takes a massive commitment, along with the heart to push yourself to the limit. Needless to say, the support of her parents Diane and Andrew – who ferried her back and forth to training on those dark, deserted streets – has been fundamental to her success.
In addition to commitment, of course you need talent (which Fran has in spades), as well as a fierce competitive spirit, which she admits is integral to her character – even playing a game of checkers will bring it out in her. She also confesses to being stubborn, which fortunately in her case translates into improvement, at least on occasion – for example, when her coach feels she’s only capable of doing so much, she tries to prove him wrong by doing more.
Underneath it all, though, it’s all about the fun, and for Fran that means companionship, the swimming itself, and of course the winning. Away from the pool she has a passion for shoe and handbag shopping, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the majority of her passion is channelled into swimming, and the ambition she’s harboured since she was a young teenager – to win an Olympic gold medal.