While the World Championships in Perth brought the New Year in with a bang, they left the remainder of the 1998 long course season surprisingly vacant. While Canada, Australia, and Great Britain work toward the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia in September, many European swimmers considered the Mare Nostrum Tour to be their only high-level competition opportunity. So it was that the 1998 tour took on a greater importance; most of the the big names flocked to Monaco, Barcelona, and Canet, and while the performances in general lacked inspiration, it was a chance to face one's primary competitors repeatedly, an aspect of the tour that has increased its popularity over the years.
But despite the quality of the entry list, the impending World Cup Soccer tournament (hosted June 9-July 12 in France) overshadowed the efforts in the pool. In order to secure a maximum of press and spectators, the three competitions were squashed into eight days (June 3-10), an exercise in intensity for the middle distance/distance swimmers, some of whom had not a single day off. The finals on the last day of competition in Canet, plagued with the usual high winds and rain, coincided with the World Cup opening game between Brazil and Scotland. Given the choice, many would have opted for a cozy afternoon on the couch in front of the television! Oddly enough though, some of the best performances were swum under the worst conditions, and the swimmers were to be commended for maintaining their humour and enthusiasm.
Many countries brought large teams; the Australian team, as usual, counted many new faces in addition to veterans Sam Riley, Philip Rogers, Adrian Radley, and Geoff Huegill, for a total of 29 swimmers. Fifteen-year-old Ian Thorpe proved that he is well deserving of his world champion title and a force to be reckoned with in the 200 and 400 freestyle, consistently winning both events at all three meets. The Russians came in force with favourites Alexander Popov, Andrei Korneev, Roman Egorov...and even Denis Pankratov, who, after a ten-month hiatus from competition, made the Mare Nostrum the stage for his return. Also present were world champions Agnes Kovacs (HUN), Marcel Wouda (NED), Denis Silantiev (UKR), and Bill Pilzcuk (USA). Happily, the tour appears to be gaining some recognition in the United States as the Americans were more plentiful than ever; newcomers to the tour included four-time world champion Jenny Thompson, double world champion Lenny Krayzelburg, and Olympic and world champion freestyler Brooke Bennett.
The Canadian team included a sizeable contingent from Quebec, with IM duo Marianne Limpert and Joanne Malar leading squads from their respective National training centres in Vancouver and Calgary. Absent again this year was the German team, who had their National Championships in Hamburg June 4-7; having chosen to concentrate on the Goodwill Games in New York in July, the meet served as their summer team selection.
After a doubtful plunge into long course competition a week earlier in Mulhouse (where he was beaten for the second time by Brazilian rival Gustavo Borges in the 100 freestyle), Alexander Popov returned to the site of his world record swim (48.21 in June 1994) a far cry from his winning form of four years ago. The eagerly awaited star of sprint had taken a break after the World Cup, he said simply, to spend some time with his family. Those awaiting a showdown between Popov and his American rival Gary Hall were to be sorely disappointed, as neither swimmer was prepared to go the distance; apparently sick with flu, Hall managed no better than 30th place in the heats (53.43) and scratched the rest of the meet. Popov made the final, but swam a miserable, almost unrecognizable 51.44 for 6th place. Top spot went to 20-year-old Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) who took advantage of the weakened field to win in 50.41. The Russian redeemed himself in the 50, however, touching out an impressive Mark Veens (22.52) of the Netherlands, with 22.48. "I'm really working on my speed for the 100, so the 50 is good for that," said Popov. His coach, Gennadi Touretski, showed little concern over his protg's performance, saying, "I told him not to go too hard, to make it difficult. I know him, and he needs to keep his stroke. He hasn't done much training but he's coming back to some natural speed, which is good." Butterflyer Denis Silantiev needed only 1:59.16 to win the 200 fly over James Hickman of Great Britain (2:00.37); world record-holder Denis Pankratov laboured through the distance, finishing last in the final in 2:03.72. Hickman, whose performances long course are steadily approaching the quality of his short course times, was second in the 100 fly (54.10) to Geoff Huegill's 53.49.
The ever-impressive Jenny Thompson won all but one of her races (second in the 100 fly with 1:00.28 to Johanna Sjoberg's (SWE) 1:00.08), taking the 50 (25.69) and 100 freestyles (56.13), and setting a meet record in the 50 fly with 27.09. One of the toughest competitors around, Thompson thrives on repeated racing and found the speed tournament set-up of the 50s (with eighth to dual finals) to her liking. "I just keep feeling better and better every time I swim," she said, "so it's looking good for Barcelona and Canet."
Brad Bridgewater (USA) touched out teammate Lenny Krayzelburg in the 100 (56.18) and 200 backstrokes (2:00.37). Krayzelburg managed to nab the 50 back in 26.43.
Australian wonderboy Ian Thorpe, who at 15 became one of the youngest world champions in history, won the 200 freestyle in a convincing 1:49.56. He added a victory in the 400 freestyle (3:52.81). Medley virtuoso Marcel Wouda worked on his breaststroke this year, but decided not to skip the 200 IM, which he won in 2:03.37. "With the world championships over, this tour is the last hurdle before I'm able to take a break. I'll take quite a long rest after thisÉso for me the season is virtually over."
Rebounding from a disappointing world championships, Samantha Riley set two meet records, in the 100 (1:08.43) and 200 (2:28.03) breaststrokes. Agnes Kovacs was second in both events, but outtouched Riley in the 50 (31.92).
Canada's Joanne Malar won the 400 IM in 4:47.89 and added a third-place finish in the 400 freestyle; Marianne Limpert, now swimming out of Vancouver and visibly settled by the move, won her fetish event, the 200 IM, in 2:16.71. On his first European tour and enjoying the change, Morgan Knabe took second place in 200 breaststroke (2:18.01) behind Benno Kuipers, another budding talent from the Netherlands.
In the Catalonian capital, the 100 freestyle saw Alexander Popov (50.73) defeated yet again by Pieter van den Hoogenband (50.72); he came back to win the 50 in 22.8, ahead of Britain's Mark Foster (22.96).
In a definite "onward and upward" mode, James Hickman swam a terrific 200 butterfly, his time of 1:58.84 beating that of world champion Denis Silantiev, second in 1:59.26.
Australia's Geoff Huegill took the 100 fly in 53.95, while Ian Thorpe held his own in the 200 free (1:49.37), followed by van den Hoogenband in 1:49.85.
In the 200 IM, Marcel Wouda was overtaken by Australian rival Matthew Dunn (2:02.87).
In women's competition, Jenny Thompson was once more nearly faultless, tidily winning the 100 free (56.29) and 100 fly (1:00.15); she lost out to Britain's Susan Rolph in the 50 free however. Rolph avenged her loss in Monte Carlo, touching in 26.06 over Thompson's 26.22. Marianne Limpert (2:16.46) and Joanne Malar (4:49.07) won their respective IM races, and with Samantha Riley gone to Norway for a holiday, Agnes Kovacs dominated the breaststroke events (1:09.70; 2:29.11).
Canet, June 8-10
The third and final leg of the tour was blessed with a day and a half of sunshine...before being assaulted by violent winds and torrential rain. Alexander Popov rose to the occasion and won the 100 freestyle in 50.74, over countryman Denis Pimankov. And under menacing skies, seemingly in full possession of his stroke once again, he went on to win the 50 from lane one, in 22.83. Veens (NED) was second in 22.97. And it seems the less-than-perfect conditions inspired more than one to strive toward his former self ; Denis Pankratov stood behind the blocks for the 200 butterfly final in Canet a different man from the one who had struggled through the race in Monaco a mere eight days earlier. Back to the black swim cap, to the scene of his 1995 world record, he went for it, knowing full well that Silantiev (winner of the 100 in 53.86) had no intentions of giving him even the slightest edge. Silantiev came through in 1:57.06, the best performance of the meet, and worth 25,000FF (about US $5000). Pankratov was second in 1:59.52, well off his best, but having accomplished much in just four lengths.
Claudia Poll (CRC), making her only appearance in Europe this year, won the 200 freestyle in 2:01.00.
Mette Jakobsen (DEN) won her third 200 fly of the tour (2:11.68 in Barcelona) in 2:11.23. She also took gold in the 100 fly in 1:00.35. In winning the 100 free over Jenny Thompson, Sue Rolph set a new meet record of 56.10. Thompson, who was tiring, won the 50 free (26.12), and added a third in the 100 fly (1:01.67). For an incredible 26 races in eight days, Thompson won the overall Mare Nostrum high point award-a 15 litre bottle of champagne-which she not only succeeded in lifting, but also in distributing to her fellow competitors at the final celebration. Continuing their winning streaks were Joanne Malar in the 400 IM (4:47.17) and Marianne Limpert in the 200 IM (2:17.14). Malar, pleased to have come back to some consistency in her performances, added a third in the 200 IM (2:17.14).
Of note were Agnes Kovacs' (HUN) meet record in the 200 breaststroke (2:28.96), Mickey Halika's (ISR) national record in the men's 400 IM (4:22.10), and Australian rookie Jade Winter, whose time of 1:02.99 in the 100 breaststroke beat out veteran Andrei Korneev.