Esposito Shines on Day Four of French Nationals

CHAMALIERES, FRANCE, May 3. FRANCK Esposito says: "Don't write me off just yet." The 30-year-old French record-holder in the 200 fly — and European Champion in 1997 and '99 — raced to a continent-leading 1:56.07 and won his specialty on the fourth day of the French Nationals-World Championships here today. His time is third globally behind Americans Michael Phelps and Tom Malchow and less than a half-second off his NR 1:55.63 from last year.

Although Esposito faltered at the Olympics in September, failing to medal after qualifying fifth-fastest in the semis, he's come back with renewed vigor this spring and is hopeful of moving to the top of the podium after finishing second at the 1998 World Championships in Perth. Considering that the second-place finisher here was David Abrad in a hum-drum 1:59.87, it's not hard envisioning Esposito not only breaking his NR of 1:55.63 from last May's Mare Nostrum meet in Monte Carlo, but also threatening the European record of 1:55.22 by Russia's Dennis Pankratov from the 1995 Mare Nostrom meet in Canet.

If Esposito medals at the World Championships in July in Fukuoka, he will become the second oldest male medal-winner at a major international competition. Only the USA's Ron Karnaugh, who, at the age of 31 took bronze in the 200 IM in Perth in 1998, was older than Esposito will be this summer.

When America's Dara Torres won two gold and two bronze medals in Sydney at the ripe old age of 33, she became the oldest female Olympic swimming medal winner. Now that Torres is presumably retired (at least until Athens!), Karnaugh a(who will be 35 in July), Esposito and "Czar" Alex Popov of Russia, also 30 and 50 free world record-holder, are the oldest active swimmers competing internationally at the highest levels.

The 200 fly was the only men's final. On the women's side Malia Metella won the 50 free (26.39) and 400 free champ Alicia Bozon added the 200 free gold to her collection with a pr 2:00.70. However, the qualifing standard for Fukuoka is 2:00.25.

Second was Solenne Figues (2:01.58) who at Sydney splashed to the current French record (1:59.67), which ranked her 13th globally last season (seventh Europe).

In the 200 IM, Romania's Olympic silver medalist, Beatrice Coada-Caslaru, apparently still in her prime at 25, won with a European-leading and French Open record 2:13.87. The only swimmer faster this season is China's surprising 16-year-old Hui Qi, who went a pr 2:13.62 at the Chinese Trials late last month in Hangzhou. Qi also set a world record at that meet in the 200 breast (2:22.99) — a time still subject to ratification by the FINA, and one which no doubt will receive extensive scrutiny.

The fastest American 200 IMer is Auburn's Maggie Bowen, who swam a 2:14.19 to win the U.S. Trials in March. She broke the American-NCAA record in the yards version of the race at the collegiate championships two weeks earlier on Long Island.

The men's 100 free semis saw Holland's world record-holder, Pieter van den Hoogenband, win his heat in 50.25, second-fastest to Algeria's Salim Iles' 50.04. Third-quickest ws former Auburn All-America (and member of the War Eagles' 1998 NCAA Championship team) Romain Barnier (50.44). His pr is 49.21 from this meet last year which, at that time (early March) was the world's No. 1 clocking. Barnier will be aiming for the French record of 49.18 by Stephan Caron, set a decade ago, in tomorrow's finals.

Iles has been training in France for the last several years and has a 100 pr of 49.70 from the prelims at Sydney. He's been after the African record of 49.44 for sometime now and, with the advantage of drafting off the world record-holder tomorrow, may have a shot at getting it. The standard belongs to former South African and University of Alabama star Jonty Skinner, who did the time at the then AAU and now U.S. Nationals in Philadelphia in August of '76, just a couple of weeks after America's Jim Montgomery won the gold at the Montreal Olympics with his then wr 49.99 –the first man under 50.0.

Skinner was, of course, barred from swimming at the Olympics due to his country's then racial policies, so the AAU Championships served as his "Olympics" and he more than made the most of his "15 minutes of fame."

Interestingly, that standard caused the FINA no small amount of consternation and embarrassment inasmuch as South Africa was considered a pariah nation and had been kicked out of the organization some years earlier. But the record was eventually accepted and stood for nearly five years — until broken by America's Rowdy Gaines with his 49.36 at a time trials in March of '81 at Austin. Gaines would go on to win three golds, including the 100 free title, at the Los Angeles Olympics three years later.

The other semi-final was the 200 breast, where the top two qualifiers are Johan Bernard (2:13.79) and Stephan Perrot (2:16.10). Perrot holds the French record with his 2:12.46 that won the 1999 Euro Championship title in Istanbul. Bernard's pr is a tick off (2:12.48), done en route to victory at last spring's French Championships.

— Bill Bell

(Editor's Note: In yesterday's report on the meet, the author mistakenly said Esposito was the European 200 fly record-holder. That title belongs to Russia's 1996 double Olympic gold medalist, Dennis Pankratov, with his 1:55.22 referred to above.)

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