The 1999 Mare Nostrum Tour was, once again, a chance for many of the world's top swimmers to test their mettle heading into the upcoming long-course season. Having just had their national championships, the cream of the French crop once again kept away. But other faithfuls of the three-stop series, such as the Dutch, Russian, British, Australian, and Canadian teams, appeared in full force and ready to perform. For the first time in ten years, Canet had good luck with the weather, and while most have come to expect the violent winds, rain, and cold temperatures possible in this volatile coastal region, the sun shone for most of the three days with only one day seeing relatively heavy winds. The addition of semi-finals in the 50 freestyle and the 100s made for some strenuous sessions with the two-and-a-half-day program.
In Monaco the organizers of Rome's Seven Hills meet signed on with the other organizing committees to make their long-standing event officially part of the Mare Nostrum for 2000. Reactions to the addition were mixed among swimmers and coaches, many of whom said they would be forced to choose two of the four competitions as four was simply too much. The quality of the Seven Hills meet has been on a steady decline since the Mare Nostrum drew away the lion's share of competitors; the organizers are no doubt hoping to restore some lustre to the event by linking up with a tour that has turned in its share of world records in season. For those who wish to make the four stops next year, the bright side will be the chance to win even more prize money.
By now a definite favourite on the tour, Alexander Popov (RUS) arrived with yet another scar - he underwent an arthroscopy operation on his left knee last January - to rack up some high quality performances. As expected, he graced all three meets with his elegant stroke in the water and his usual composed confidence on the deck. He won the 100 freestyle at the first meet in Barcelona in 49.45, then went on to take the honours in Canet (49.67), and finally in Monaco, where he turned in the fastest performance in the world so far this year with 49.26. He had a streak in the 50 freestyle as well: he won in Barcelona in 22.55, in Canet in 22.59, and in Monaco with an impressive 22.06 (another world best this year), proving that he is fully in control of his game heading into the next test, the European Championships in Istanbul in July.
The four-time Olympic champion had some disparaging words for his younger training companion, however. Having suffered a bit of a slump following the 1998 World Championships, where he won seven medals (four of them gold), Australian Michael Klim was also using the Mediterranean event as an opportunity to regain some prowess. According to Popov, Klim benefitted from the Russian's wave to finish second in the 100 free. Another adept at dragging was Italy's Lorenzo Vismara, who surfed into the wall behind Popov in the semi-final of the 50 in Monaco in 22.52. Of Klim's performance, Popov said only, "He will payÉ." underlining the complexities created when two of the most celebrated champions are made to coexist as they do: different nationalities, different training, same coach. And in the sprint Tsar's mind, same etiquette. But frictions aside, Klim did manage to redeem himself with admirable butterfly swims, including wins in the 100 in Barcelona (53.87), Canet (53.34), and Monaco (53.08), the last of which won him the Mare Nostrum grand prize, a 15-litre bottle of champagne (his second time).
Still riding high after his sensational performance at the U.S. Spring Nationals, Ukrainian-turned-Californian Lenny Krayzelburg was in fine form, turning in the top performance in Canet with his 1:58.86 200 backstroke. He went on to better that time in Monte Carlo, clocking 1:58.21, and adding a 55.04 win in the 100.
Looking strong and very relaxed, Britain's Susan Rolph pitted herself repeatedly against the formidable American sprinter Jenny Thompson and came out on top on more than one occasion. She dominated Thompson in Barcelona and Canet, beating her in both the 50 and 100 freestyle (55.56 in Canet). "It helps me a lot for next year," said Rolph. "Now one of my goals for Europeans will be to try to get to the top of the world rankings." In Monaco, Thompson's ability to swim numerous races back to back served her well, however. She toppled Rolph in the 50 free (25.47) and won both the 100 free (55.89) and the 100 fly (59.76), as well as the 50 fly.
Germany's short course world champion Sandra Volker returned to the pool where she set her 50 backstroke world best (29.00) in 1997, having vowed to do it again now that FINA has officially recognized world records in the stroke 50s. She decided to waste no time, nailing the record in the quarter final (50s in Monaco are swum through eighth, quarter, semi, and dual finals) with a blistering 28.78. "I had two difficult weeks before coming here," said Volker, elated. "When you announce that you're going to do it you have to come through and there a couple of days when I thought, oh-oh, either Saturday or Sunday has to be the day when it all comes together, but to do it on the first try is just terrific." Volker cashed in on the 100,000 francs ($20,000) prize money for a world record, then swam under 29 seconds again the next day in the semi-final. But in a rather anti-climactic finish, she lost out in the final to former Russian Nina Zhivanevskaya (29.05 to Volker's 29.06), now swimming for Spain after marrying and moving to Malaga. It lent credence to the cash-over-consistency rule that is becoming ever more present in the sport.
Short course world champion butterflyer James Hickman (GBR) was up against some tough competition from the new Russian talent Anatoli Poliakov. The 19-year-old Russian beat him out in Monaco in 1:59.12, but Hickman, who has been travelling and racing up a storm, is confident heading into the British Nationals, which will be held two weeks before the Europeans. World record-holder Denis Pankratov was unshaved, unprepared, and also overshadowed by his younger countryman. After a 2:01.86 in Barcelona, his fourth place in the 200 in Monaco (2:02.82) means there is still work to be done before Istanbul if he is to live up to coach Viktor Avdienko's prediction that he'll be close to his best (1:55.22!!) this summer. The Russians also have their national championships/European trials at the end of June.
The Dutch team, ever a veritable powerhouse, swam in Barcelona. Pieter van den Hoogenband swam the 200 free in 1:49.83 but gave Canet a pass in order to train for a few days before catching up with the tour in Monaco. Heading into the Dutch national championships the following weekend, Marcel Wouda said in Monaco that the team was continually improving due to its relentless exposure to world class swimmers. "We're just doing so well this year," he said. "Some years ago in Holland we were doing 52s for 100 freestyle and thinking it was fast. Now we've got guys going 50 seconds, and I think when we get out there next to the others and see that the times are doable, things really progress." Of himself he said that he had perhaps overdone the travelling over the last 12 months, which included four altitude training camps. "But I'm definitely at a higher level than I was last year," he said. "I was disappointed with my short course season this year, but coming into the long course season my times are incredible. I'm really happy with what I'm doing." He added that none of the top Dutch swimmers would taper for the nationals, but just swim through them on their way to Europeans.
Danish veteran Mette Jacobsen is looking primed for Istanbul, where she will dispute both freestyle and butterfly. She dominated the 200s in both strokes at all three meets, beating out Costa Rica's Claudia Poll in Canet in the freestyle with 2:00.82 to 2:01.61. Having honed her silhouette down even more, Poll took the gold in the 400 in 4:12.54, pocketing some prize money on her only stop on the tour. Jacobsen, 26, just kept on smiling as the tour progressed, and she saved the best for last. Her winning time of 1:59.75 in the 200 freestyle was not only a meet record but also her first time under the 2-minute mark.
The Canadian contingent, led by medley specialists Joanne Malar and Curtis Myden, was also a presence to be felt as they got in some valuable racing before the summer's events in Winnipeg and Sydney. Malar's 400 IM in Canet - 4:45.06 and miles ahead of everyone-was certainly respectable. She added a win in the 200 with 2:15.38, then went on to win both events, the 400 in 4:43.71, in the Principality. A recently graduated Myden was able to concentrate on just racing again. He did it well, winning the medleys in Canet and Monaco, where he reeled in a fading Wouda to take the 400.
Terence Parkin and Sarah Poewe, both from South Africa, made impressive debuts in the Mediterranean waters. At 19, Parkin is no newcomer to international competition. He was seventh in the 200 breaststroke (2:09.69) at the world short course championships in Hong Kong and fourth at last years Commonwealth Games with 2:15.30. He's also deaf and mute, which means he needs a special flash signal instead of the gun for the start. No worries though - Parkin loses no ground off the dive and found himself on the podium in Canet and Barcelona (200 breast and 400 IM) more times than he expected. Graham Hill, who coaches Parkin in Durban, says he learned official sign language, but now they have developed their own sign language "slang" that allows them to communicate quickly on the pool deck. "It's a challenge, but it works," he said. Poewe, who's just 16, trains with Hungarian-born Karolyi von Toros in Cape Town. She racked up an impressive array of medals with repeated wins in the breaststrokes over the course of the tour, soaking it all in before heading back to Budapest where she is spending two months training. She will also take part in the Hungarian nationals to get in some races against Agnes Kovacs, then head back to the southern hemisphere for the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney. No doubt she is one to watch this summer and beyond.
Germany's Franziska van Almsick limited her appearance to Monte Carlo but made little impression. Her third-place finish in the 200 freestyle (2:01.29) was an improvement on her performance two weeks earlier at the German nationals, but hardly enough to imagine that she will be any kind of a threat this summer in Istanbul - where she has only one individual event - or next year in Sydney.