The International Meeting in Sarcelles, France, saw its profile go up a few notches when two of swimming's most talked about stars showed up for some early long course competition.
The presence of Germany's Franziska van Almsick - tall, slim, and almost elegantly detached - and Ireland's Michelle Smith - short, determined, and handsomely defined - added a compelling contrast to an otherwise long and uneventful weekend.
The two came head to head in the 100 freestyle, with Smith dominating in 57.53, a new Irish record. Van Almsick's 57.78 was remarkable only for how difficult it was, as the 1994 world champion admitted afterward.
"My times here were terrible," she said. "I've never needed so much power to do such bad times. But I can't swim any other way at the moment."
Her winning time of 2:02.52 in the 200 did even less for her confidence, but van Almsick spoke with deep humility when she added, "I have to get used to swimming at this kind of meet. Before I only competed when I was really fit, but now I'm coming off a long break (4 months after the Olympics) and I need time to get back into it. It's not easy. I'm actually really surprised at how supportive the French people are. Their response here has been so positive."
Indeed, both van Almsick and Smith were heavily solicited for autographs and interviews, and while they graciously acquiesced, neither woman was very keen to discuss her plans for the summer season.
Smith, who added victories in the 800 freestyle (8:52.10) and the 200 IM (2:20.69), said that despite having already qualified for Sevilla, she was still unsure as to whether she would compete. "I'm happy with what I've done here," she said, "I didn't expect fast times, and I certainly didn't expect best times...it will depend on how my training is going."
She did disclose that she would compete in Belgium and Canet, and "go somewhere" for some long course training, either in the U.S. or Europe.
As for van Almsick, she heads to Vittel for a two-week training camp with her coach Gerd Esser, in preparation for the German trials in early July that will determine whether she wins a berth to Sevilla. "I'll be up against Dagmar Hase, Kerstin Kielgass...those are pretty big names!" she smiles, implying that her biggest challenge for the moment is to live up to her image, and the competition at home.
But despite the weight of expectation on her, the 19 year old maintains the desire is still there. Apart from some private school English and Italian courses, she is focussed on swimming. "My main goal is the World Championships in Perth...I still have the feeling that I can swim faster."
Her reaction to Costa Rican Claudia Poll's world record performances in Gšteborg sounded less convincing: "Those are crazy times, and I don't know if I can swim that fast. Both races were really impressive."
Of the change from her longtime coach Dieter Lindemann, she said, "My training is completely different now, and I think I needed that. I spent 6 to 8 years doing the same kind of training, and it's good to change."