By Craig Lord
Istanbul, Turkey – The records started to fall on the first day of the 24th European Swimming Championships in Istanbul, the Dutch men’s 4x100m freestyle relay setting a European record of 3:16.27 and both women’s finals producing championship records that replaced the best that the GDR had had to offer during its drug-induced domination of the continent’s prime event.
A trawl through the history book shows that the Netherlands had won just one medal, a bronze in 1997, in the 4x100m freestyle relay since the event was introduced at the European Championships in 1962. From that to a quartet that could beat the best Russia has had to offer with Alexander Popov at the helm. The Russians clocked 3:16.85 to win the European title in Seville two years ago. In Istanbul, they could manage only 3:19.49, despite a 48.88 sec split from Popov.
That paled by comparison to Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband’s 47.31 split, the fastest in history, which brought his national team home in a blaze of glory. With Popov gunning for his fifth European 100m title in a row this week, the race now looks more interesting than it had 24 hours ago. Van den Hoogenband’s teammates were Johan Kenkhuis (49.79), Mark Veens (49.12) and Marcel Wouda (50.05).
Germany was victorious in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay, in a championship record time of 3:40.87, a time that would have won the world title last year in Perth and has been bettered by only China, the US and the GDR. Sandra Voelker brought the team home in Istanbul with a 54.37 split, her teammates being Katrin Meissner (55.69), Antje Buschschulte (55.40) and Franziska van Almsick (55.41). Sweden was second in 3:43.07, with Britain third in 3:43.55.
Yana Klochkova, the Ukrainian who was second to China’s Chen Yan at the World Championships in Perth last year, won her first senior European title. Her 4:38.14 victory in the 400m individual medley was a championship record and half a second inside her Perth time. Klochkova was runner-up to the now disgraced Michelle Smith de Bruin at the European Championships two years ago. Second in Istanbul was Beatrice Caslaru–nee Coada–of Romania, in 4:40.98, while Hana Cerna, of the Czech Republic, in 4:45.45, collected her third bronze medal in the event at a European Championships since 1993.
Though the first race of the night was the only one not to produce a record, it was, nonetheless, the most thrilling. Paul Palmer finally took the European 400m freestyle crown to Britain for the first time since Ian Black’s victory in 1958, after having won silver medals in 1993 and 1995 and a bronze in 1997. The winning time was 3:48.12, just 0.1 outside his British record, while Italian title holder Emiliano Brembilla finished second in 3:48.50.
Beyond the times, it was the race that thrilled. Palmer led until just before 200m, when Brembilla took up the lead and stretched out strongly. It looked as though Palmer had miscalculated. Anything but; the British champion was 0.8 behind Brembilla at the final turn but then put in a 27.32 final 50m to catch the Italian with 10m to go and pass him on the way home.
Craig Lord is Swimming World’s European correspondent.