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And Just Wait 'Til Bernard Tapers

Mar 22, 2008  - Craig Lord

Alain Bernard, fresh from launching a new era in sprint freestyle racing, had been to anti-doping, was allowed out to a press conference, bottle in hand, but had to return to deliver a bigger sample. In between, he was asked what he thought about Filippo Magnini's vitamins comment. With a smile, he held up his water bottle and said: 'I drink water. That's it.'

And then the drop: to the sound of much sniggering, he revealed: 'I didn't have a full taper, but I had rested from training. With a full taper, perhaps I can improve. That's the aim.' Better than 47.50. But the bigger aim this summer is to touch the wall first in Beijing. 'Now I know I'm the man to beat. I've been training and preparing and finding ways to get to this level for years,' said Bernard.

Asked about his turnaround in form, Bernard, ninth and out of the final at Melbourne 2007, said: 'For years, I went out very fast. If you think before the race that the end will be tiring, then you will never make it.' At 1.96 (6ft4) and weighing in at 88kg of cut muscle that sets him apart from the leading sprinters of what looks like a bygone (recent bygone) age (Popov, Ervin, Hoogie etc) Bernard's size was to be found in the tone and flavour of many questions.

His success came down to 'hard work every day ... its a pleasure to swim and to try each day to prepare in the perfect way', he said.

Was this a new era, one in which power would win over technique? Bernard saw his success as a combination of strength and skill. 'You can't rely only on just power. You have to have the technique first.' Asked what he was doing that set him apart from rivals he had trounced, he said he was drawing strength and support from a buoyant French team. 'I believe in my group. I believe in my coach. Our French team is getting stronger and stronger and I am happy to be one of the leaders.'

The time on the scoreboard had been 'very emotional for me. I didn't expect it. I will continue to try to do it again in future.' Emotional, too, for the rivals who did not appear to celebrate the moment with him on the podium. 'I respect them, I hope they respect me but of course this is competition, its a battle,' said Bernard.

He had not reached his potential and the secret was to 'keep on working'.

Coach Denis Auguin told SwimNews that it was incorrect to see Bernard as a sprinter who covered little distance in training and was a man far removed from the Popov mould. 'He did cover bigger distances in his youth and had a very good base. When he was young, he swam a lot. He has a good aerobic base.' Bernard covers less distance in training these days but contrary to some reports, he is not down to the levels of 2-4km a session see among some of his rivals. 'We do 6-7km a session,' Auguin confirmed, the sum of it 50km plus, generally speaking.

Was Bernard a charge who demanded explanations in training. 'Yes,' said Auguin with a smile. 'He asks questions every day. He questions everything. Each week he wants to know what we will be doing the following week, I tell him and we have a debriefing at the end of each week and he tells me how he felt and how things have gone.'

Auguin had seen Bernard travel close to his Eindhoven speed before. 'At a camp in Canet a year ago he clocked 47.8 off a flying start but he never reproduced that in a race until now.' After the disappointment of Melbourne it was Auguin who took Bernard aside and gave him an ultimatum: In Melbourne he didn't do the job and then we talked and I gave him an ultimatum: you have to choose - we go on to a high level preparation or you can be an amateur forever.'

Auguin demanded race speed in all quality sets in the water. Bernard's landwork programme includes three weights sessions a week, one at maximum, and an additional land-set of stretching exercises. He can press 130kg.

All of which adds up to a muscled, powerful athlete who is now the subject of suspicion. It is the fate of all who produce extraordinary performances. How best to protect the athlete then? Would blood passports help, would he be happy to have blood freezed and rules changed to allow an indefinite timeframe for testing?

'Oui' to all of that, said Auguin. He was fully confident that his swimmer and the results on display in Eindhoven were the products of hard work and application of the swimmer day in and day out. Bernard is not only tested by FINA's agents and other anti-doping agencies but by agents sent from the French State under national law, he noted.

Auguin had expected Van Den Hoogenband's record to fall but had also expected the threat to come from others. 'There are so many high-level sprinters across the world, and even in France alone. It's to be expected that they will break through'.

How long will the mark stand? 'No idea. I do know that all Olympic trials in the main countries are going to be fast this year.? Bernard could improve but the 'ultimate goal is to touch the wall first in Beijing'.

As far as Bernard being the first of a generation of more powerful sprinters, Auguin said: 'There are certain limits ... a balance between muscle bulk and strength and suppleness is important. Power to weight ratio is as important as it ever was.'

One of the most striking things about Bernard's performance was the start. Not the party off the block but the trajectory and the momentum gained: within three to four strokes Bernard had swum to a head and shoulders lead and was on a roll much faster than his rivals. 'The entry is important and the momentum gained,' said Auguin. 'He is good at that but his start off the block can be improved.'

Sprinters will need to adapt: the target is sub 47, the sub 48 zone no longer one that will guarantee a podium place in Beijing, eight years after Hoogie cracked the barrier but eight years along a journey that stopped off in Eindhoven with the first sub 48sec victory in a major championship final.