PUPILS and staff at a North Yorkshire school were on the edge of their seats when Olympic hopeful Nicola Jackson took to the water.

Lessons were suspended and nails bitten to the quick at the 16-year-old's school in Richmond yesterday for the young swimming sensation's big moment in the Sydney Olympics.

Nicola was in the British women's 4x200m freestyle relay team, which came in sixth after a gripping race, won by a hand's breath by the Americans. But there was no shame in defeat - the squad still set a new British record, with Nicola starting first and achieving a personal best.

Back home, normal school life was put on hold to allow fellow pupils the chance to watch TV coverage on a giant screen put up in the main hall and on sets installed in some of the classrooms.

More than 400 crammed into Richmond School's hall, where silence fell as the beeper sounded to start the race.

Even staff were biting their nails, as Nicola put everything she had into her first two lengths.

It was only after commentators complimented her efforts that cheers broke the tension.

And, from that moment, she had support loud enough to drown out the television. Almost as if she sensed it, Nicola produced a burst of speed in her final length.

Watching at home was 14-year-old sister Joanne, also a successful swimmer. "I was so nervous - my heart was thumping and I was shaking. My great aunt couldn't even look at the screen," said Joanne.

"Nicola's never swum first before and getting a good start is so essential, but she did her best time and I'm really proud."

Joanne is now hoping she can build on her own achievements and swim with her sister who, on yesterday's performance, seems a certain contender for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

PE teacher David Clark said the whole school should be proud of Nicola's achievement

"It was obvious from when she was 11 years old that she would shine.

"She's also good at running and other sports, but she set her heart on swimming."

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