By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, January 21. ALEXANDER Popov, the Czar of sprint freestyle, slipped quietly out of Australia last week with his wife Daria and two young sons in tow.
The world record-holder over the one-lap dash departed these shores ten years after moving from Russia as a quiet 21-year-old bachelor with little command of English to follow his coach, Gennadi Touretski, Down Under and train at the Australian Institute of Sport.
The largely unheralded Popov had just beaten two of the great American freestyle sprinters in Barcelona ‘92, reigning Olympic champions and world record holders Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, to claim the 50 and 100 freestyle golden double.
Popov spoke exlusively to SwimInfo the day prior to his departure about his thoughts in leaving Australia and of his next two years in Europe:
"There are mixed emotions for me, sad at first. This is a beautiful country, the weather and the ocean are fantastic and we have made many good friends here, but the job ahead is a very good opportunity and not to be missed."
Popov, 31, will commence a management program in Switzerland with his long-time sponsor Omega at the beginning of next month. It will be a busy two years for the man who took consecutive double Olympic gold in the 50-100 free in Barcelona and, four years later, in Atlanta.
He will have to manage his new job, which includes learning to speak German, his committee roles with the IOC and the Russian Sports Federation, together with his training schedule to swim at the World Championships in July and finish his glittering career in Athens at the 2004 Olympics.
"Training will be more difficult over there with the job," he said. "I will aim to qualify for Barcelona at the Russian championships in April or do the times needed at the Mare Nostrum tournament in May. One thing I can tell you, I won’t be swimming Masters after Athens," he joked.
It was also clear that his move to Europe was brought forward with the sacking of his coach, Gennadi Touretski, from the AIS in Canberra last June. While Touretski was gainfully employed in Australia, Popov was likely to have delayed his move until after the "Main Event" in Athens. However, with Swiss Swimming making an offer to have Touretski's expertise on board, it made the move much more simple.
Touretski told SwimInfo he is due to leave for Switzerland this week to join Popov, who has already reported some early difficulty with adjusting to morning starts with the mercury down around –4C (25F), a far cry from Canberra which has been experiencing temperatures over 38C (100F) and the worst bush fires in the Capital’s history.