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Popchanka and Baron Steal Show For France

Dec 10, 2006  - Craig Lord

It mattered little to France, as things turned out, that Laure Manaudou withdrew from race action on the final day of the European short-course championships: after teammate Alena Popchanka, coached by husband Fred Vergnoux in Edinburgh, stormed to a European record of 1:54.25 over 200m freestyle, the Olympic champion's training partner Esther Baron clocked a new standard of 2:04.08sec over 200m backstroke.

Popchanka denied European long-course champion Otylia Jedrzejczak, of Poland, the double by 0.14sec. The record had stood at 1:54.53 since January this year to Britain's Melanie Marshall, in heavy training and back in eighth in Helsinki on 1:56.95.

The new record splits: 26.92; 55.72; 1:25.21; 1:54.25. Popchanka is now fourth fastest ever behind Lenton, Benko and Poll, with Jedrzejczak third. Josefin Lillhage, of Sweden, took third place just 0.11sec shy of her best, on 1:54.75.

Popchanka took the lead from the gun, turned first at 100m in 55.72, with her Polish rival on 56.26 before clawing back into closer contention over the next 50m, turning with a length to go just 0.13sec behind the leader. It looked for a moment as though the long-course champion would add the short-course crown to her treasury but the Frenchwoman was not done and had other ideas, digging deep for a surge of energy in the closing metres to take the crown.

She said: "I felt so good in the heats this morning that I was pretty sure I could achieve a good time ... and now it's even a European record!"

Vergnoux was delighted, noting that neither Popchanka nor any of his other swimmers had rested for the meet. "They had a few days between (other meets last week) and here where they didn't do all sessions but I told them back in September that they had three meets left this year and without rest they would race well at at least one of those. I'm very proud of the way they're swum here. It looks good for what we're really working for, (Melbourne 2007 and beyond)."

Popchanka's reception in the warm-down area after her race summed up all that is good about international sport: the hugs came from her homeland of Beloruss, from her French teammates and from Britain, where she is based. Training partner Kirsty Balfour, who took the silver medal over 100m breaststroke, said: "I was really excited for her ... she is such a lovely person to have around ... and of course, this makes the coach happy, which is always a good thing!"

Popchanka contributed to France rivalling Germany on the medals table, but Europe's powerhouse took the meet by a gold, with 6 titles, 6 silvers and 3 bronzes (tot, 15), to France's 5 golds, 3 silvers and 3 bronzes (11). Italy (8) and Russia (8) came next with four golds each, the Italians ahead with three silvers. Poland (12) was next in line with 3-5-4.

It is always worth noting the worth of things: of Germany's six gold medals, only one, Antje Buschschulte's victory over 100m butterfly, involved an Olympic event, while two of their victories came in team races not raced anywhere else in the world barring at the European winter showcase and - unofficially so far - US college meets. In contrast, all of France's golds came her way in individual events that will form part of the programme when Beijing provides the ultimate test of just how much progress or otherwise nations have made.

But for the 200m free effort, Popchanka might have challenged for the 100m butterfly title later in the session but finished fourth on 58.65 as fresher competitors took advantage while they could. The crown went to Buschschulte, coached by former East German coach Bernd Henneberg in Magdeburg, in a German record of 56.94, just 0.39sec shy of Martina Moravcova's European record, and after a battle royal with Holland's Inge Dekker, second on 57.19. The Slovakian took bronze on 57.59.

Given the splendid efforts of Popchanka and Baron (read on), it was something of a shame that technical director of French swimming, Claude Fauquet, and French federation president Francis Luyce, had already left town. We have to assume it wasn't because Manaudou had put away her race suit, withdrawn from the 200m free and switched to training mode.

After enjoying some free time (with coach Philippe Lucas's blessing) on Sunday morning with boyfriend Luca Marin, of Italy, the Olympic champion, still sporting the word "Amore" on her palm, plunged into the pool a little before 4pm and after a brief warm-up went through a 200m medley set, a butterfly set, a freestyle pull set and a long steady swim-down of around 1,000m before leaving the pool just shy of a 2-hour session.

Her training partner, Baron, the other champion in coach Philippe Lucas's stable, raced smartly, turning third half-way in 1:00.64, with Ukraine's Iryna Amshennikova inside American Natalie Coughlin's world-record pace at 1:00.18. By 150m, Baron had closed the gap to 0.12sec and over the last 50m swam 0.61sec faster than her opponent to leave the clock reading: 2:04.08 to 2:04.57.

The record splits: 29.46; 1:00.64; 1:32.39; 2:04.08. Baron, who was hugged by Manaudou in the warm-down area, both teammates in tears, said: "I can't breathe anymore! I swam the last 25 metres with my guts and gave it more than I had...".

In third was Britain's team baby, Elizabeth Simmonds, 15 and almost four seconds faster than her best, for a bronze medal, the first individual orb of her senior career, in 2:05.74, after a medley relay medal earlier in the championships. She is looking beyond Melbourne and Beijing to a home Games in London 2012 but is already showing world-class skills beyond those of many of her older rivals here, her start and turns second to none and better than most in Helsinki.

The other Brit medal winner of the day was Balfour and where she had added the 200m short-course crown in Helsinki to her European long-course victory in Budapest back in August, Ukraine's Anna Khlistunova followed the same pattern over 100m, leaving the British champion to settle for silver in the sprint event, just as she had in Hungary.

Khlistunova, of the Volozno club in Rovno, claimed the title in a championship record of 1min 05.73sec, Balfour's 1:06.57 just shy of her best, with Bath University-based Janne Schaefer, of Germany, third on 1:07.32.

The excited champion said she was speechless as Oleg Lisogor and other teammates rushed up to hug her. Balfour was a little more measured: "It's been an incredible year," she said. And so it has: if her silver medal for Scotland over 200m breaststroke behind Leisel Jones, Australian world record holder, in Melbourne, elevated her to the world top three, then the first European title in that event to come Britain's way since 1962 in Budapest in August provided evidence that Britain has a racer capable of making the Olympic podium in Beijing.

The same can be said for Italy and Alessia Filippi, the European long-course champion, who added the short-course crown to her name in an Italian record of 4:31.58, after taking the lead after butterfly and staying there to the end. An impressive breaststroke leg set Poland's Katarzyna Baranowska up to challenge for the title just 0.18sec behind Filippi going into freestyle. But the Italian, a 4:08 long-course 400m freestyler, pulled away gradually over the closing 100m, leaving the Pole to settle for silver in a national record of 4:32.78, ahead of Russian Anastasia Ivenenko, on 4:33.46.

Filippi, coached by Cesare Butini at Aurelia Nuoto in Rome, said: "I improved race by race at these European championships. This victory is very important to me after I already won the European title on long course last summer."

Her teammate Filippo Magnini scorched a 1:42.54 victory over 200m freestyle, a final that gave another Italian, Massimiliano Rosolino the 50th international medal of his career, in 1:44.17, with Poland's Pawel Korzeniowski, world 200m 'fly champion, third on 1:44.41.

Magnini, coached by Claudio Rossetto at Laurus Nuoto, said: "My coach told me to swim a tactical race, and that's what I did. I didn't especially prepare for this event because I'm in the middle of my preparations for the Worlds. That's why the time is very good for this point in time." Rosolino added: "This was my 50th international medal. I'm enjoying myself because I'm still having the power to fight."

The semis of the 50m freestyle saw all eight race inside 25sec, Marleen Veldhuis at the helm on 24.24, ahead of world record holder Therese Alshammar, on 24.42. the final was a class beyond that, Veldhuis falling just 0.10sec shy of Alshammar's world record on 23.69, the Swede second on 23.76. Only Alshammar's record is faster than the top-two times clocked in Helsinki.

Veldhuis said: "This race was perfect for me because I could see Therese on the second lap. I have been training together with Jacco Verhaeren (coach of Pieter van den Hoogenband in Eindhoven) for a few months now. Since then my grip in the water has improved. And that's an essential improvement for me."

Alshammar, looking better than she has in the water (she always looks grest out of it, of course!) for some time, said: "I think that I had a very good race but I missed some technical details at the turn and the finish."

Olympic medallist Daniel Gyurta, of Hungary, held on to the shoulder of Poland's Slawomir Kuczko for seven of the eight laps of the 200m breaststroke before cracking a terrific last turn, emerging into his stroke a fraction ahead and firing for the wall, Kuczko in tow all the while. The Hungarian stopped the clock first on 2:06.58, just 0.03sec ahead the Pole, who also took silver a year ago in Trieste. Defending champion, Paolo Bossini, of Italy, was third on 2:07.13.

Gyurta, coached by Sandor Szeles of Jovo SC in Budapest, said: "I was runner-up in the Olympics but after that I lost my technique in breaststroke. That's why it is a great comeback for me. I improved my personal best by two seconds."

The crowd stood and roared for several minutes for a swimmer who finished fifth in the 100m medley in 54.41. And quite right too: Jani Sievinen, of Finland, was cheered and drummed into retirement after a long career that included the 1994 world 200m medley title and a world record that was out-of-sight for its time, lasting until Michael Phelps came along to change the order of things.

"It's done!" proclaimed a smiling Sievinen. "And it was fantastic to end my career here in Helsinki in front of this great crowd. I'm positively surprised by my time because I haven't been able to train much." And now he will never have to do so again.

Sievinen's departure stole a little thunder from Peter Mankoc, of Slovenia, who, in 53.05 claimed the non-Olympic medley sprint for the seventh time. He had never lost the title since 2000 but in 2003 in Dublin shared the gold medal with Sievinen.

Mankoc, a policeman in Ljubljana, wher he is coached by Dimitrij Mancevic, said: "It was a historic victory - my seventh European title in this event. Unfortunately I wasn't fast enough, but it was also a great honour to swim with Jani Sievinen in his last race."

Arkady Vyatchanin, of Russia, admitted to being one of those, like teammate Yuri Prilukov, who has prepared to excel in Helsinki rather than train through with Melbourne in mind (though it's hard to see the Russians deliberately forfeiting success in Melbourne for the sake of short-course trophies in Helsinki). He added the 100m backstroke to his victory over 200m, in 51.11sec, keeping German teammates Helge Meeuw and Thomas Rupprath at bay (51.16 and 52.02 respectively).

Vyatchanin, coached by his parents Arkady and Irina at the Federal Security Club in Taganrog, said: "I was prepared for these Championships, but today I had a bad touch. So I missed a better time and perhaps a second European record."

Rupprath had already set a championship record of 23.05 in the semis of the 50m butterfly on his way to the 50th international medal of his career. Of those, 22 were won in individual events at these championships since 1996, 16 of those gold. The final saw him get that 50th medla but it was a silver, behind Croatian Alexei Puninski, on 23.21, to Rupprath's 23.34, down on best, the fatigue of the backstroke bronze still swimming in his system. Third place went to former Iceland backstroke specialist Orn Arnarson, on 23.55.

Rupprath said: "This was my 13th race here in Helsinki, the battery is simply down. I couldn't do better."

The championships, which saw one real world record (Manaudou) and five other European standards fall, closed with a reminder that as fun a thrill as all of this is, the short-course showcase is a bit of a phoney war: Sweden's quartet of Stefan Nystrand, Petter Stymne, Marcus Piehl and Jonas Tilly clocked 1:24.89 to win the 4x50m freestyle. A world record, Europe says. Only trouble is, it's not really a world record: Auburn University in the United States is the owner of the two fastest times ever, 1:23.75 from 2004 and 1:24.83 from 2000. The truth is out there. It'll set you free too.