Alain Bernard (FRA) has met his season's target: the first sub 47sec effort: in 46.94, he cracked Australian Eamon Sullivan's world record of 47.05 in semis of the 100m freestyle at French nationals in Montpellier. The immediate question was: what was he wearing and was it a model that has been approved for use, given comments in the French media today just before some fast swimming in heats .
SwimNews is here to break the news: Bernard wore the new Arena X-Glide. Watch the video. He is the first to wear that suit and the first to set a world record in one. A spokesman for Arena noted that the suit maker was "really happy for Alain, who has worked hard for this and put all of himself into it". However, the statement to SwimNews noted: "We maintain our original position. If the world is ready to roll back to before 2008, we are ready and it is what we would want. But now we have to play the games that others are playing." Arena had been "discredited" by other suit makers in the past year as claims were made for the "fastest" suit in water.
An observer in Montpellier told SwimNews: "Jaked are stealing swimmers by handing out suits everywhere you turn. It's horrible. The sport is in ruins. In that kind of atmosphere, good for arena: FINA have said its ok to have suits that make you faster. So why should Alain Bernard not wear anything he wants. There are no rules right now, no list of what can be worn and what cannot be worn."
"I knew when I came here that the conditions were good to achieve something," said Bernard. "It gives me a lot of pleasure. To be the first under 47 seconds, it's mythic." Asked about the suit immediately after the race he said: "You know, the whole world is wearing suits [generation fast fabric] ... you have to go there."
Bernard's coach Denis Auguin believes there is more to come from the swimmer. "His strength is his work and his desire to be a world champion," said Auguin. "I felt at 75m that something was going to happen. I don't feel that the record is due to the material. The only thing I know is that he is capable of swimming this speed."
Indeed. In that suit and a few others, perhaps. In the suit he wore in Melbourne 2007? His suit maker, at least, is among those hoping that the world of swimming returns to a time when the suit is not enhancing performance as it clearly is right now.
It remains to be seen what FINA will say. Hard for it to say much, given that it cannot be sure which swimmers are wearing which suits right now at a time when no suit checks are in place. No official could possibly say what a new arena suit looks like as opposed to an "old" arena suit. It looks black, looks uniform. There is no information out there yet. Its appearance is no quicker than the LZR was or the the TYR, which has evolved through several incarnations since the early 2008 model. And on and on. The situation is, as Jacco Verhaeren, Dutch performance director, said, echoing the words of very many indeed according to the mails I receive, one that only FINA can resolve. It will resolve nothing by banning one performance here or questioning another there. The solution is to draw a clear line and impose as hard and fast a rule as possible, one that restores balance and fairness. The world of swimming awaits news from the independent suit testing process.
So, back to the racing, starting with the splits compared:
No doubt who is now the favourite for the world crown in Rome this summer. Bernard, Olympic champion, is already preselected. No doubt either that France is now at the helm of world freestyle sprinting, the pace of progress in these fast-suited times breathtaking: behind Bernard came three men who cracked 48sec tonight and must fight for that second berth tomorrow.
France now has six men in the all-time top 25, compared to four Americans and three Australians, on a list that boasts 13 sub-48sec swims. That translates to Roland Schoeman (RSA) being the highest pre-Feb 2008 entry, at 17th on 48.17, while Alex Popov's 48.21 best makes the sprint Tsar 20th best performer five years into retirement, while on the performances list, the Russian rocket's fastest time sits at No70. In January 2008, 48.21 was the 12th best performance ever.
World-record progression since Pieter Van den Hoogenband (NED) raced to glory for the Netherlands at the Sydney OGs in 2000 (little knowing that his would be the last pre-fast-fabric world record in the 100m free):
This is what unfolded today - first time heats - best or prev best in brackets) - and semi-final time tonight - the sub-47, sub-48, sub-49 and sub-50 club:
The women's event was led in semis by Malia Metella, Toulouse, in 54.28, on the cusp of her 53.99 best from Olympic trials a year ago.
The sizzling suited progress continued in the 100m backstroke: the men's final was won by Jérémy Stravius, 21 this year and a 55.68 swimmer coming into this year. His and Gaul's best now: 53.16. That put him 0.11sec ahead of Ben Stasiulis, on 53.27 (55.08 was his best four months ago), Pierre Roger, on 53.55 (his 54.89 best dated back to 2002), and Camille Lacourt, on 53.57 (a 56.27 swimmer four months ago). They helped glide France into a new era of backstroke: by the end of 2007, that 54.89 effort by Roger in 2002 remained the best France had at 53rd fastest ever and one of three entries for Gaul in the all-time 100. Today, there are four men in the top 20 ever.
In the women's equivalent, Esther baron, Marseilles, chimed home in 1:00.00 precisely, ahead of Alexianne Castel, on 1:00.19, boh half a second up on their 2008 bests. Coming out of Melbourne 2007 worlds, those times would have been the 3rd and 4th best ever. Now, they rank 17th and 19th.
There were significant gains to be seen in the 400m medley finals. The women's title went to 18-year-old Lara Grangeon, Caledoniens, on 4:40.41 (up from 4:47.15 in 2008), ahead of Joanne Andraca, Hyeres, on 4:45.52, while the men's crown went to 21-year-old Anthony Pannier, CN Braud St-Louis, on 4:16.97 (who had a 4:27.23 best four months ago), ahead of Raoul Shaw, Frejus, on 4:19.87.
After a 2:26.33 French record in the heats of the 200m breaststroke, Sophie de Ronchi, ES Massy Natation, clocked 2:26.75 in the second semi. Second through to the final was Sara El Bekri, of Morocco and Lyons, on 2:27.96 (prev best: 2:30.04), and third through was winner of the first semi Coralie Dobral (CS Meaux Natation) in 2:28.08 (prev best 2:28.90 from 2007), before Fanny Babou, of CNS ST-Esteve, on 2:28.36 (prev best, 2:30.82). A tight challenge in prospect for the final.
Gains on the clock were also to be found in abundance in the men's 200m breaststroke. The first semi went to Fabie Horth, AC Pontault-Roissy, in 2:12.10 (his first best time in three years after a 2:13.72 in 2006 when 21), ahead of 27-year-old Tony de Pellegrini, Bayonne-Aviron, on 2:12.55 (his first best time since 2001, when he clocked 2:15.36, aged 21), before Britain's Paris-based in-training Kris Gilchrist, on 2:14.07.
In the second semi, Henrique Barbosa (BRA), based at Lagadere Paris Racing, clocked 2:11.48 (can't tell you where that sits in his history file - he is not listed in the world rankings and his name does not appear on the official entry list at the championships ... an add note to this file: the athlete is registered under a different name and had a best time of 2:12.56 last year) ahead of Hugues Duboscq, Le Havre and an Olympic and European medal winner, on 2:13.02.
The 200m butterfly final for women saw Aurore Mongel, of Mulhouse, crowned in 2:06.94, with second berth at Rome 2009 world championships going to daughter of ace French sprinter of the 1970s, Michel Rousseau, Magali, racing for Clichy, second in 2:08.40.
The men's final went to Clément Lefert, Nice, in 1:56.20, a stroke down on his best of 1:55.05 set in semis yesterday, in a close battle that gave the second berth in Rome to Thomas Vilaceca, EN Albi and 19 this year, on 1:56.88 (he set a best of 1:57.82 in heats and came to Montpellier with a best of 2:00.35 after a 2:01.77 in 2008), and Christophe Lebon, Antibes, locked out on 1:56.97 (1:56.54 is his best from last year). The third man home is the swimmer of Alain Bernard's coach Denis Auguin, who said yesterday that he was ready to "throw in the towel" so disturbing was the suit fiasco's impact on the sport.
Like any nationals the world over, there are hits and misses - and within the same programmes. The picture in France is one of widespread progress: those now rocketing up the all-time rankings swim for some 20 different clubs with different coaches and approaches. They all have in common at least one thing beyond the coaching, the hard work, the swimming. I leave it for you to work out.