The last pre-Olympic round-ups set the stage for next year.
A quick glance over the results of Atlanta and Vienna leads to the following very general conclusions: men are swimming slightly faster in Europe, with some very respectable competition from the non-European countries. For women the scales are completely reversed; with a few exceptions, performances by women in Atlanta far outshone those of their European counterparts. On the whole, the performances in Atlanta showed greater depth.
What to expect next year in Atlanta? Among other things, a definite Russian presence. With Alexander Popov swimming a 49.10 100 freestyle with a fever and no coach, Gary Hall Jr. had better be prepared to race. Vladimir Selkov will be there in the backstroke, and Denis Pankratov is, for the moment, unbeatable in the butterfly (see below). Breaststrokers beware the likes of Andrei Korneev (2:12.62 to win the 200 breaststroke), Hungarian Karoly Guttler, and the Belgian Frederick DeBurghgraeve (gold in 100 breaststroke, 1:01.12). Even double Olympic champion Evgeni Sadovyi, out of sight for the past two years due to illness and depression, appeared in Vienna to ease back onto the scene in the Russian relays. The Russians, lean, mean, and hungry, would like nothing better than to beat the Americans on their own turf; Popov has said so himself.
And what else? Tough Aussie and American women. Samantha Riley, Susan O'Neill, Hayley Lewis, Jenny Thompson and Amy van Dyken. The Chinese aside, these women have been honing their skills in preparation for an all-out battle in Atlanta...may the cleanest of them win.
HIGHS-Only two months after his mind-blowing world record performance in the 200 butterfly (1:55.22, set in Canet in June), Denis Pankratov of Russia decided to secure himself the title in the 100 as well...a startling 52.32 obliterated the oldest world record in men's swimming (previous mark of 52.84 was set by Pablo Morales (USA in 1986), placing the bar very high for the next challenger. Using his usual strategy of 25 m underwater, Pankratov hit the 50 mark in 24.58, only to bring it home in an incredible 27.74. Impressive. There's just no way around it.
Pankratov claimed yet another European title days later in the 200 fly: 1:56.34. And there's no reason to think he'll be any less hungry next summer...
Despite the fact that he was nowhere in the 200 IM rankings coming into Vienna (not having swum the race long course since last summer in Rome), Jani Sievinen of Finland proved once again that he's no slouch in the individual medley. Or anything else, for that matter. A surprise victory in the 200 freestyle (1:48.98) set him up for a win in the 400 IM (4:14.75), followed by a beautiful 200 IM—1:58.61, not far off his own world record of 1:58.16.
Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary reaffirmed herself after a disastrous World Championships last summer. After some time off and the positive tests of the Chinese, the 21-year-old star decided to come back and make her mark in Atlanta. In Vienna she left the 100 backstroke off her program, choosing to concentrate on the 400 IM and the 200 backstroke. She won both events in times that put her back on top of the world rankings (4:40.33; 2:07.24).
AND LOWS-And it had all started so well. German star Franziska van Almsick arrived in Vienna with an agenda: a sweep of the freestyle events (50, 100, 200, and 400, a new addition to her repertoire) except the 800, and three relay golds. Considering that at 15 years of age she won six golds at the European Championships in Sheffield in 1993, such a bold challenge was within the realm of things possible. But, surrounded as she was at every turn by the usual horde of journalists and photographers, one can hardly wonder that the latest "wundermädchen" suffers from the occasional attack of nerves!
The 100 freestyle posed no problem. One down, six to go. It was on the second day that things went awry.
In a bizarre revisiting of the unsavoury events in Rome, Franzi went through the humiliation of her life by, once again, missing the final of her specialty (for which she holds the world record), the 200 freestyle, and ending up ninth. Incomprehensible, considering she was in the last heat in the morning and should have known exactly what she had to do. At such moments, experience is a truly abstract concept.
Whereas in Rome the disaster was quickly mended by the scratching of her compatriot, Dagmar Hase, from the final, this time no one volunteered their spot. No doubt, Franziska would not have wanted it anyway. She has apparently suffered enough repercussions after the strange events of last September to want to try such a stunt again. Let's face it, at 17, the public eye has a heavy gaze. She went on to redeem herself in her own fashion, the gold medal vapourized, by winning the B final in 1:57.71, well ahead of her teammate Kerstin Kielgass, who took advantage of Franzi's flub-up to win the coveted gold in 2:00.56. Reminiscent of Thomas Fahrner's 400 freestyle at the Los Angeles Olympics, when he won the consols in a faster time then the gold medallist ... from time to time that German resolve seems to work in strange ways.
Hungarian rival breaststrokers Karoly Guttler and Norbert Rozsa were not on top this time around, despite a valiant effort by Guttler in both the 100 and 200. Upstaged by both a Russian and a Belgian (!), not to mention his compatriot, one had to wonder if double world champion Rozsa is on the decline before even getting to Atlanta? Those gold medals eluded him in Barcelona, so he'll no doubt be back with a vengeance one more time. But no one said it would be easy.