By Bill Bell
It was some obscure English playwright whose name escapes us at present but who flourished about half a millenium ago and once penned a tome entitled “Much Ado About Nothing” that would be an appropriate appelation for this year's XXV edition of European Swimming Championships, recently completed in Helsinki.
Rarely has a competition left such a void as this, with NO world and only ONE continental record established (at least in races 100 meters or greater
in length — the less said about the 50s the better!) and few national records too.
Smilarly, one has to search one's memory to find such an important competition lacking in star power as this year's was, with the noticeable absence of such notables as the Ukraine's great flyer, Denis Sylantiev; France's Franck Esposito, the Netherlands' Marcel Wouda, Hungarians Zsolt Gaspar, Attila Czene (defending Olympic champ in the 200 individual medley)
and middle-distance ace Bela Szabados, all training in the United States.
Plus Germany's world 200 free record holder, Franzi Van Almsick, was conspicuous by her absence from Helsinki too — as was recent quadruple world record-setter Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, who in May and June smashed the 50-100 free-fly WRs.
“Inky” is training with American coach Paul Bergen at Tualatin Hills Swim Club in suburban Portland, OR., and Bergen of course was coach of perhaps America's greatest woman swimmer ever, Tracy Caulkins, who still holds the record for most championships won (48) a decade and-a-half after her retirement following the Los Angeles Olympics.
Not in the last three decades-plus has a Continental Championship been held this close to an Olympics. An argument could be made that LEN (League of European Nations) made a BIG mistake by holding the meet this year after holding a similar championship in Istanbul less than 12 months ago, but presumably the powers that be felt it was important to hold a meet this year
rather than next as the World Championships will be contested in '01.
Couldn't they have simply foregone conducting a competition and let it ride until '02, when presumably the next Euro Championships will be held? Especially in an Olympic year, when many of the leading lights either opted out or basically swam through the meet?
Whatever the rationale the meet was held and despite the paucity of records the competition was of a high caliber and many “lesser” lights came to the fore who have not previously had any significant impact on the world swimming scene.
Foremost of these, at least on the women's side, is Poland's talented 16-year-old flyer Otilya Jedrzejczak, who set a pair of national records
while stroking to an impressive victory in the 200 (2:08.63) and earning a silver in the 100 (58.87 with an NR 58.77 in the semis).
Her 1999 bests were 1:00.02 and 2:10+ so obviously that Polish spring water she trains in must do the trick.
Winner of the 100 fly in 58.72 was Slovakia's Martina Moravcova, a former multi-NCAA champion for Steve Collins' Southern Methodist University squad in the late '90s, whose NR 58.41 from the U.S. Nationals in Seattle last April was the world's leading time until Australia's Petria Thomas set a Commonwealth Record of 58.05 at her Trials in May and, of course, De Bruijn's
mind-boggling 56.69 at Sheffield, which she backed up with a 57.65 at Rio and a 57.97 at the Dutch Olympic Trials.
Moravcova was ill last summer and didn't swim at Istanbul but figures to be in the thick of things in not only the 100 fly but the 200 free at Sydney,
along with perhaps the 100 free too.
The lone Continental record-setter was Sweden's Lars Frolander, who defended his 100 fly title from Istanbul and improved on Russia's Denis Pankratov's
Euro standard with a fine 52.23 — third-fastest performer of all time behind Australia's WR-holder Michael Klim (51.81) and Aussie Geoff Huegill,who beat Klim at their Trials in May, 52,19-52.20.
Klim has the world's three-fastest performances (51.81, 52.03, 52.15). Then comes Huegill and Klim again (52.19-52.20), followed by the latter's 52.22
from the semis of the trials, then Frolander.
The SuperSwede was a multi-NCAA champ for Coach Eddie Sinnot's SMU Mustangs during 1995-98, and holds the top two performances of all-time in the 100-yard fly, and of course is the U.S. Open record holder too.
Big winner on the ladies' side was Ukraine's Yana Klochkova, who powered to golds in the 400 IM-400 free and tied with Romania's Beatrice Caslaru in the 200 IM. The latter was an upset winner over Hungary's Agnes Kovacs in the 200 breast.
The sprints were dominated by Swedish star Therese Alshammar, a former Nebraska Cornhusker All-America for Coach Cal Bentz, who set NRs en route to the 50 (25.44) and 100 free (54.41) titles. Alshammar's 50 is second on the all-time performances' list to “Inky's”
pending WR 24.39, and at Helsinki she had an impressive three swims under 25.0 — 24.94 in the heats, 24.84 in the semis and 24.44 to win.
In the 100 she went out in a blazing 25.63, compared to De Bruijn's wr split of 25.87, and Husker boss Bentz attributes her new-found speed to her work in the weightroom with the football team.
“She was in there daily doing those 500-pound squats and deadlifts with Johnny Rodgers and I.M. Hipp. Never missed a day. That's what did it,” he opines.
Alshammar was also pressed into service on Sweden's gold-medal winning 400 medley relay, but as a backstroker (an event she swam regularly at Nebraska)
and responded with an NR 1:02.42 — second only to Spain's Nina Zhivanevskaya's 1:01.39 leadoff.
Zhivanevskaya, a former star for the Russian team who is now a Spanish citizen by virtue of marriage, had a triple gold showing of her own — stroking to wins in the 50, 100 and 200 back — the latter with a national-record and world-leading 2:09.53. Her previous best was a 2:11.60 from the 1996 Russian Olympic Trials, but conspicious by her absence was France's defending world and European champion Roxana Marzcineanu.
However, the latter's PR is 2:11.26 from Perth a couple of years ago. Last year she won at Istanbul with a 2:11.94, ranking her third globally for the
year. Zhivanevskaya's 2:09+ is world leader for 2000 and makes her the seventh-fastest performer ever — just behind Germany's Dagmar Hase's 2:09.46, the Continental standard that won her Barcelona gold eight years ago.
Last year at the European Championships Switzerland's Flavia Rigamonti took ill just as the competition was starting and thus was hors d'combat. However, she was 100% fit at Helsinki and won the 800 in a time just .05 of a second off Diana Munz's world-leading time. Her 8:29.16 is a national record and her win makes her the first Swiss woman to win a Euro title in
more than three decades. Teammate Chantal Strasser took the silver and never before have two Swiss women finished one-two.
On the men's side everyone was waiting for the “show-down at the ol' water hole” between the Netherland's 1999 triple Continental champ Pieter van den
Hoogenband and Russia's Alex Popov, who came away empty-handed last year at Istanbul in terms of golds.
The wait wasn't long in coming as Popov clearly showed he didn't come to Helsinki to “act monkey for everybody” by throttling the competition in
general and “Hoogie” in particular with easy but impressive wins in the 50-100 frees — and anchoring the winning medley relay too.
But again Hoogie was not race-ready as he himself readily admitted, and suggested that Sydney will be anotjher story entirely.
The biggest star on the men's side was Italy's Massi Rosolino, who splashed to victories in a pair of disparate races — the 200 free-200 IM and led off
his country's victorious 800 free relay with the meet's fastest split of 1:47.53.
While Rosolino set an NR in the 200 IM his 1:47.3 to win the 200 free was more than a half-second off the Italian standard of 1:46.69 by Giorgio Lamberti from the 1989 edition of this meet in Bonn — a time that stayed as the world record until Australia's Grant Hackett went 1:46.67 leading off a relay a year ago May.
Hackett's teammate, Ian (Thorpedo) Thorpe, has made mincemeat of that record since last year, going 1:46.58, 1:46.34, 1:46.28, 1:46.00, 1:45.69 and an
incredible 1:45.51 to win at the Australia Olympic Trials in — where else? — the Sydney Olympic Pool in mid-May.
Although he was not a gold medalist, Romania's Dragos Coman showed fine form in earning a silver in the 400 free (NR 3:48.69 behind Italy's Emilio Brembilla's 3:48.56) and a bronze in the 1500 free (NR 15:10+).
Hungary's Istvan Bathazi made his initial appearance on the winner's platform with a personal-best 4:18.51 400 IM triumph, and Belarus' Natalia Baranouskaya won gold in the 200 free (NR 1:59.51) and silver in the 400 free (4:11.37) — both national records and her country's first triumphs since independence.
Similarly, Croatia's Gordan Kozulj scored his and his country's first Continental victory with an NR 1:58.62 200 back triumph. Runner-up was Italian veteran Emanuele Merisi (2:00.02) and bronze went to Israel's Yoav Gath (2:00.32 with an NR 2:00.20 in the semis).
Both Kozulj and Gath have strong American ties, with the former a “All America” for Coach Nort Thornton's Cal Golden Bears who is training this summer in ZPhoenix; the latter is also an “All America” for Coach Jack Bauerle's Georgia Bulldogs — who have won the NCAA women's championship the last two years running.
Bottom line — what does it all mean in terms of what's going to happen at Sydney?
Can Alshammer be competitive with the likes of Inky De Bruijn, Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson (not to mention Angel Myers-Martino and perhaps defending Olympic
50 champ Amy Van Dyken)?
What about Hoogie? Was he realy just “swimmng through the meet” at Helsinki and giving Popov false hopes? Or is the Russian Rocket really over the hill
despite his impressive victories here? Has Father Time finally caught up with Tsar Alex, new training program or no? Can a alte-20s man win at three different Olympiads?
How about Frolander? Are the Aussies (not to mention Esposito, Sylantiev and perhaps even a Yank or two) going to drop him like a bad habit or can he
win at Sydney as his predecessor Par Arvidsson did at Moscow 20 years ago?
Then there's Brembilla. Three years ago he was 3:46.9 and 14:50+ — times he has NOT approached since. He looked good at Helsinki but good enough to contend for a medal?
With nine weeks to go before the splashing starts for real all one can say is that it will be “interesting.”