SWIMNEWS ONLINE: June 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

An Olympic year often spells hum-drum for in-season competitions that are normally of top quality.

While this year's Mare Nostrum Tour lacked its usual lustre, it was a decisive event for many European countries as it served as their Olympic Trials. Sweden in particular had an enormous presence this year, with 90 swimmers competing in Monaco and Canet to make their selection times. Switzerland, Spain and Finland also completed their Olympic teams based on performances at one or more of the three meets. For Olympic team members from Russia, Great Britain, Italy, France, Holland, and even the United States, the Tour provided a valuable opportunity to race tired and reevaluate their conditioning before Atlanta.

As usual there was money to be won; a total of 255,000FF (about $,50,000) possible in Monte Carlo, and 165,000FF (about $30,000) in Canet, plus the traditional car and motor-scooter for a world and European record respectively.

Monaco, May 25-26

Alexander Popov's presence was sorely missed at the Stade Louis II in Monte Carlo, where the plaque on the Lane 4 starting block is a constant reminder of his world record performance (48.21) in the 100 freestyle in 1994. No such luck this year, although there were some notable swims.

Jani Sievinen, the Finnish wonder, made his first and only long course appearance of the season in Monaco. He won the 200 IM in a new meet record of 2:01.48, a time that ranks him second in the world behind American Tom Dolan. He also added the 200 backstroke to his Olympic agenda, finishing a strong second to Selkov to post an impressive 2:00.70.

The Swedes were prepared to swim well and were numerous in the finals. Anders Holmertz, off to his fourth Olympic Games, won the 200 (1:49.11) and 400 (3:51.48) freestyles and added a second in the 100 (50.89), where the Swedes were 1-2-3. Linda Olofsson won the 100 free (56.53) and was second in the 50 (25.99). Johanna Sjoberg took the 100 fly in 1:01.19.

Costa Rica's Claudia Poll, now a regular on the Mare Nostrum circuit, put in strong performances in the 200 (2:00.15) and 400 freestyles (4:10.38). Disappointed with her 200, she said she intended to swim faster in Barcelona and Canet.

The anxiously awaited showdown between world record-holder Denis Pankratov and the French butterfly champion Franck Esposito was a true test for the star of the Russian team. Pankratov was not only tired, but seemed to still be reeling after his two short course world records were not recognized at the Paris World Cup in February. To add insult to injury, the news of the non-ratified records caused a scandal in Russia (it came out as Pankratov having failed a drug test!), and the stir it caused had a definite negative effect on his morale.

In the 200 fly the two men were stroke for stroke at the 100, with Esposito pulling ahead at the 150. Pankratov showed the mettle of a real champion; with 25 metres left he just managed to find enough juice to secure the victory. But not by much-he touched in 1:58.01, while the Frenchman, who sprouted wings when he realized he was ahead of "the myth," as he calls him, clocked 1:58.3. The effort took its toll on both of them, however, as the next day in the 100 neither Pankratov nor Esposito qualified for the A final! Pankratov scratched the B final while Esposito won it in a respectable 54.55.

Of note in the Australian camp (the Tour was a consolation prize for those who missed the Olympic team) was Brooke Hanson who won all three breaststrokes (32.64; 1:10.45; 2:30.29), and Rachel Harris, who took the 200 IM in 2:18.11. Allison Wagner, the only American Olympic team member to come abroad this year, was disqualified in her specialty, the 400 IM, for an incorrect back-to-breast turn. No mishaps in the 200 IM, where she finished third (2:20.36) behind Harris and Martina Moravcova of Slovakia (2:18.63).

A novelty in Monaco: the 50s are run as a "speed tournament", in other words eighth (16), quarter (8), semi (4), and dual (2) finals in all of the strokes. That meant a possibility of five races, a feature that most coaches appreciated for their sprinters and stroke swimmers alike. Bill Pilczuk (USA), who won the 50 freestyle in 22.51, said, "That was the hardest final I've ever made in my life, but I came out of it with a lifetime best, so it was worth it."

Barcelona, May 27-29

Highlights in Barcelona: Claudia Poll's 200 freestyle; her winning time of 1:59.35 ranked her 2nd in the world behind Franziska Van Almsick's 1:58.88, done at the German Nationals. Poll also won the 400 in 4:10.6.

Frederik Deburgraeve of Belgium, currently ranked No.1 in the world after his 1:01.44 performance in Charleroi in May, was an easy win in the 100 breastroke in 1:02.85.

Canet, May 31 - June 2

Once again the weather conditions in Canet were less than idyllic. The swimmers rose to the occasion however, and managed to put in some very respectable performances despite the cold winds and heavy rainfall. Although the special edition Peugeot 106 (the prize for a world record) remained parked on the deck, there were seven new meet records.

An obviously tired Russian squad was unremarkable this year. Pankratov was unusually heavy in the water, and in the 200 he was well off his world mark set in 1995. Challenged by Konrad Galka of Poland, he fell behind after the 100, but once again came back in the last 15 metres to touch out Galka in 1:59.95. He could not repeat the feat in the 100 however, and was beaten by teammate Vladislav Kulikov (54.36 ahead of Pankratov's 54.45). Remains to be seen if the remaining weeks of training and technical work will suffice for the gold in Atlanta.

After his 1:01.44 100 breaststroke in May (currently the No.1 ranked time in the world), all eyes were on DeBurghgraeve. Given the cold and the wind, the Belgian settled for a win in 1:02.64, nevertheless an improvement on his swim in Barcelona.

Claudia Poll rounded out the Tour with victories in the 200 (1:59.44) and 400 (4:12.37) freestyles. The quality of her performances at all three meets leaves no doubt that she will be a contender in these events in Atlanta. "It's a lot of competing in a short time," she said afterward, "but I'm happy with my times and know I can do a lot better."

For the Swedes, who were trying to qualify swimmers for the Olympic team, the cold and rain was particularly unfortunate. Anders Holmertz kept up his streak, winning the 200 freestyle in 1:49.41. European champion Linda Olofsson won the 50 free in 25.97, and the 100 in 56.47. Head Coach Hans Chrunak explained that the Swedish Olympic Committee had insisted on having their Olympic selection in an international context. "We're such a small country that it made no sense to do it at our Nationals," he said. "The swimmers all know their competition too well. Here they are up against a lot of swimmers that they don't know so they have to race accordingly." The weather was unfortunate, he admitted, but there was no benefit of the doubt for swimmers who had an off day. "They have to have a realistic chance to make an A final at the Olympics," he said. He hopes to propose a list of at least 17 swimmers to the Olympic Committee in early June. The whole exercise will have cost them over a million French Francs (over $200,000).

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