HOOGIE FINISHES WITH SIX GOLDS
By Craig Lord
Things could hardly have gone more perfectly for Pieter van den Hoogenband, the flying Dutchman, on the last day of the 24th European championships; not only did the 21-year-old from Maastricht clock the second fastest championship victory ever in the 50m freestyle, 22.06, and the fastest ever 100m freestyle relay split of 47.20, but those times took his tally of gold medals in Istanbul to six.
Only the disqualification of the Netherlands in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay on the penultimate day of competition kept “Hoogie” from exceeding the record six titles at one championships held by Germans Michael Gross, from 1985, and Franziska van Almsick, from 1993.
In winning the 50m freestyle, the Dutchman, a medical student who wants to follow his father’s footsteps into that profession, became only the second man after American Bill Pilczuk, to beat Alexander Popov in the 50m freestyle at a major international championship since 1992. That year the Russian won the first of his two Olympic 50m titles in 21.91, the fastest ever championship victory. Popov was third in Istanbul in 22.32, behind Lorenzo Vismara, of Italy, on 22.21.
Hoogie was back in the water within the hour to sweep the Netherlands 4 x 100m medley relay past Popov and his Russian teammates and the German team that had a 2 second plus lead going into the freestyle leg, and so on to the one gold medal for the quartet, the sixth for Van den Hoogenband. The Netherlands celebrated victory in 3:39.52, with Germany second on 3:40.15 and Russia third on 3:41.18.
Van den Hoogenband’s was an extraordinary performance from an extraordinary man, who for the first time in his career brought all the elements of his skill, natural talent, training and mental toughness together at the same time. Now there is speculation about how many gold medals Hoogie can win at the Olympic Games in Sydney next year, a topic the young Dutchman does not like to entertain. There will be too many great swimmers in the pool to count your chickens before they hatch, he implied. “Just getting one medal is hard enough,” he said.
The Netherlands celebrated further success when Inge de Bruijn won the 50m freestyle in 24.99 ahead of Sweden’s Therese Alshammar on 25.30 and Britain’s Alison Sheppard, who set a British record of 25.33. In the semi-finals, de Bruijn set a European mark of 24.84.
The highlight of the women’s events in the closing session of the championships, however, came from Hamburg’s Sandra Voelker, whose 28.71 victory in the 50m backstroke gave the continent’s top event its second world record of the extended seven-day program. Runner-up at 29.02 was Nina Zhivanevskaia, the Russian turned Spaniard who was lucky to escape penalty when she tested positive for Bromantan at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The substance is now specifically banned.
Camelia Potec, just 17 and from Romania, looks like a serious title contender for Sydney next year in the middle distance freestyle events. She led the 400m from start to finish. Only Kerstin Kielgass, the German who first won a European medal for the GDR in 1985 and will turn 30 next year, gave Potec a hard time, and only then in the closing 15 meters. The times were fast by recent championship standards, Potec winning in 4:08.09, to Kielgass’s 4:08.57. Third was medley champion Yana Klochkova, whose 4:10.11 in her first major international race over the distance sent a warning sign to freestylers heading for Sydney 2000 with a 4:10.11.
Her male medley counterparts were down on world-class pace in the 400m individual medley, with Frederik Hviid of Spain winning in 4:17.16, just ahead of Israeli Mickey Halika’s 4:17.49. The surprise was Marcel Wouda’s comparatively poor 4:18.26.
Standards were also relatively poor in the women’s 200m butterfly, the title going to Denmark’s Mette Jacobsen in 2:10.40, with former champion Maria Palaez, the Spaniard who beat the disgraced Michelle Smith de Bruin for the title, second in 2:11.49.
The final women’s race, the 4 x 100m medley relay, saw Van Almsick and her German teammates walk out on to the deck in Harem hats, gold tassels hiding their faces. They needed them at the end of the race too, for Sweden clocked 4:07.52 to win by 0.27 over Germany, with Britain third in a national record of 4:09.18. That relay saw veteran swimmer Karen Pickering collect her tenth bronze medal in four championships from 1993 to 1999. “I was hoping the tenth might be of a different color,” she smiled.