BARCELONA - With hundreds of entries, a pool inside a basketball stadium, and a war-wounded Iraqi swimmer competing in the heats, most thought the finals would never get under way this evening. But with a fairly packed house, the swimmers got down to business proving why they are the best in the world.
This morning American Jenny Thompson started the competition off with a meet record clocking 58.14 to touch a body length ahead of teammate Natalie Coughlin. Tonight Slovakia's Martina Moravcova countered with a win in the first semi-final with a 58.05. But Thompson trumped her with a 57.99 to regain the record and head into tomorrow's final in lane four. Heading into the final in third behind Thompson and Moravcova is Poland's Otylia Jedrzejczak.
Is it the smooth lines of his slick black suit, or is his stroke really that superior? Watching Ian Thorpe swim is as close to swimming Zen as one can get. The results of course, can be predicted before he even touches the wall, the only difference between each race is his time. But Aussie teammate Grant Hackett always makes it interesting until the 300; then Thorpedo kicks on the super-jets for win. This go round he clocked a 3:42.58 with Hackett touching in 3:45.17. Thorpe's final 100 was a 55.72 to Hackett's 57.31. In the only spot up for grabs, Romania's Dragos Coman won the bronze in a best time of 3:46.87.
Thorpe said his new coach, Tracy Menzies, told him to just focus on the basics and stay in control of the race. "I'm very pleased with the result, but it's just the start of a long meet."
It was anyone's race at the 100, with 6 girls flipping at 60 seconds. But it was Germany's Hannah Stockbauer, the bronze medallist from '01, who led the field from start to finish, surging to a decisive victory in the final 15 metres with a 4:06.75. It looked like Hungarian Eva Ristov might take the win from Stockbauer, but she was only able to manage a 4:07.24. American Diana Munz got the bronze in her second best time of 4:07.67.
"I didn't expect this," Hanna Stockbauer said. "I didn't hear the beep at the start and I started a little slow. At the end I just went for it. It's a fantastic feeling. The atmosphere here is great, there is so much more going on that in Germany."
Canada's Brittany Reimer, caught out in lane 8 and away from the leaders hung on for fifth place and a new national record of 4:09.34. The 15-year-old showed no fear in her first international competition as she dropped almost 3 seconds from her best. "I just went in there with my head held high, thinking that I deserved it just as much as the other girls. I was prepared to go fast, I didn't walk onto the pool deck scared, but ready to race."
World record holder and defending champ Aussie Geoff Huegill had to settle for second place, at least until tomorrow night's final. His time of 23.62 in the first semi-final was good enough for the win, but not enough to qualify in lane four. That honour goes to Ian Crocker who broke the American record with his semi-final win of 23.47-just 3/100ths off the world record.
Canadian Mike Mintenko broke the national record with his 23.97 swim. Unfortunately he missed the final, finishing in 9th spot. "I am not focused on the 50 fly and there are 50 freestylers in there who are just swimming this for fun, so I m not too disappointed with 9th. It was a good swim and it's a good sign for the 100. I have a lot more swimming to do this week."
Ukraine's top swimmer, Yana Klochkova swam to an easy victory and the top berth for tomorrow night's final with her 2:13.63. She beat out Aussie Alice Mills, who swam her best time of 2:13.69 to qualify in second place. Her countrywoman, Leisel Jones was ranked fourth heading into the competition, but failed to qualify for even the semi-final.
Despite Canada's history of great IM'ers Marianne Limpert and Liz Warden fell short of qualifying for the final. Limpert is the '96 Olympic silver medallist and Warden had posted the second fastest time of the year heading into the competition, but the duo finished in 11th and 13th respectively.
Even without the world record holder in attendance, the men's 100 breast field is the fastest in history. Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima was 4/100ths off the world record, qualifying for tomorrow's final in first spot. US swimmer Ed Moses who qualified in 3rd behind British swimmer James Gibson said it didn't matter that Roman Sloudnov (WR holder) was missing from the meet. "You've seen the final, how fast it is. It doesn't matter who's here, and it doesn't mean anything that he's not here."
Canada's Morgan Knabe also commented on the fast field. "That's life! Just because I keep getting faster and so are the others, I can't be disappointed. I can't do anything about the other swimmers, only myself." He also hoped the crowd would lift him up for tomorrow's final. "Apart from cheering for Ian Thorpe and the last 15 metres the crowd has been quiet. I think tomorrow night I will just let myself get into the vibe of the crowd and hopefully it will be louder, because that's what I live off."
Jenny Thompson is the Queen of the relay anchor. She's done it for 8 Olympic gold medals and she did it again tonight to boost the American women into first place. Her split of 53.44 was the fifth fastest of all time and her best ever. Germany fought hard for the win, but Sandra Volker managed only the silver with Australia touching in third.
The usually dominate American and Aussie men had to settle for second and fourth respectively, as Alexander Popov's Russian team won the gold in a new Championship and European record. In a solid swim, France placed third, 1/100th ahead of the Aussies thanks to their anchor swimmer Frederique Bousquet who had the fastest split of the night with a 47.03 (second fastest all time). Popov swam a 47.71 while Jason Lezak brought the American's home in a 47.89.
Canada was 7th in 3:16.83, a new national record bettering the old mark of 3:17.69 from last year's Pan Pacs. Only two-and-a half seconds out of first place with splits of Yanninck Lupien 50.16, Riley Janes 49.01, Michael Mintenko 48.78, and Brent Hayden 48.88.