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Karin Helmstaedt

MONTE CARLO- The first leg of the very popular Mare Nostrum tour looked too good to be true. Eagerly awaited this year in Monte Carlo were Olympic medallists Alexander Popov (RUS), Gary Hall (USA), and Denis Pankratov (RUS), a trio with a profile to match the surroundings. But as the competition drew near, its prospects dwindled back to the ordinary; despite attractive performance incentives (the prize money for the first two world records was doubled this year from 50,000 FF to 100,000 FF each), both Popov and Hall were no shows. Recent short course world champion Lars Frolander (SWE) was nowhere to be found, apparently ill, and butterfly phenom Pankratov showed up, but didn't swim!

But let's face it, this is a difficult year. A swimmer like Australia's Michael Klim came off the Olympics and swam a national championships in December before powering his way through five legs of the 1997 FINA World Cup, and the short course world championships in Gšteborg. Trials for Pan Pacifics, the Mare Nostrum tour, then Pan Pacs themselvesÉall of that with the world championships in Perth looming unusually close in January of 1998. Many swimmers have settled for much less. Many, like Popov and Hall, have made very clear choices about how to orient their year, giving preparation top priority over financially interesting appearance meets.

As a result, the most notable performances came in the Speed Tournament, a MonŽgasque invention in which the 50s (all strokes) are swum through eighth, quarter-, semi- and dual finals. Germany's latest sprint queen, Sandra Všlker, came through with a world best in the 50 backstroke. Her time of 29.00, done in the second round of finals, bettered Wenyi Yang's (CHN) previous world best of 29.05, set in 1989. Všlker also broke Kristin Otto's European best that dated from the same year. "I came here with the record in mind," she said, "but I've had problems with my knees and I'm quite tired so I wasn't sure how it would go. I just gave it my best shot."

Unfortunately she was unable to cash in on the prize money for a world record as the stroke 50s are not recognized by FINA long course.

The Russians, out in force but tired after their own nationals and trials for Europeans, assured victories in the freestyle (Vladimir Pyshnenko, 100 and 200, Natalia Mesheryakova, 50), backstroke (Vladimir Selkov, 200, Olga Kochetkova, 50 and 100) and breaststroke (Stanislav Lopukhov, 50, Roman Ivanovski, 100).

A strong Chinese team included winners Ying Shan (100 free), Xue Han (50 breast), Yan Chen (200 back), Huijue Cai (50 and 100 fly) and Chengji Jiang (men's 50 free).

Marcel Wouda, the first ever male world record-holder from the Netherlands, won both individual medley events (2:02.58 and 4:21.22), while the Ukrainians Denis Silantiev (100 and 200 fly), Svetlana Bondarenko (100 and 200 breast) and Volodymir Nikolaychuk (50 and 100 back) all had double victories. Australia's Klim, a seemingly indefatigable competitor, won the 50 fly and tied amicably for the gold with Pyshnenko in the 100 free (50.95). Two years ago the swimmers trained together under coach Gennadi Touretski when Pyshnenko spent 10 months in Australia. Said Klim, "We get along pretty well, and it's kind of ironic that we swam the same time."

A small Canadian team led by Olympic silver medallist Marianne Limpert also had a number of finalists. Of note was Limpert's victory in the 200 IM (2:16.48) ahead of the versatile Martina Moravcova (SVK), who won the 200 free and 200 fly, and added another silver in the 100 fly.

Julien Sicot, a black swimmer from Martinique who trains in Bordeaux, was a revelation for Claude Fauquet, the Director of France's national team. After missing selection for the European Championships the week before in Mennecy, the 1.90 m sprinter wowed the crowd with a 22.58 50 freestyle. The time ranked him first in the world for an hour or so, until he lost out in the final to China's Jiang (22.57). Quite naturally, the question arose as to whether he would be added to the French team bound for Sevilla. The French make rules to break them, but in this case, the affair is yet to be decided.

Finally, the meet in Monte Carlo is never over until the streamers and party hats fly at the final evening's gala dinner, hosted by Prince Albert of Monaco himself. With an impressive meal and a variety show that had the audience spellbound (everything from racy cabaret numbers complete with topless dancers and strip tease, to magicians, comedians, and brilliant marionettes), the gala evening - held at the prestigious Loews Hotel - is a precursor to a night at the casinos or one of the Principality's colourful nightclubs. It is a cultural treat that none of the swimmers would miss, either this year or next.

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