SAINT ETIENNE, France, April 16, ATTN: MICHAEL PHELPS
That gold medal you figured is yours for the taking in the 200 butterfly this summer at Barcelona? The one that you won two years ago in Fukuoka? The same race where you hold the world record? Know what I'm talking about?
Don't start polishing it. Not just yet, at least.
For the second time in two years, France's Franck Esposito, showing that even though he's 32 he's not quite ready for the rocking chair, pipe and slippers, sent Master Michael a message: "I want your title and your record."
Esposito easily won the 200 meter fly this evening on Day 4 of the French Championships/WCTs in a world-leading 1:54.70, just 8-hundredths of a second off his European record 1:54.62 from this same meet a year ago at Chalon. That time led the world in 2002 and is a mere .04 off Phelps' world record of 1:54.58 from the World Championships at Fukuoka in 2001.
Esposito was fourth while Phelps wpn the gold medal and set the world record two years ago in Japan, after the former tied America's Tom Malchow for No. 1 in qualifying (a then Euro record 1:55.03).
Phelps was the previous 2003 global standard-bearer with his 1:55.17 from the Duel in the Pool April 6.
Esposito's time this evening gives him history's second- and third-best performances, with Phelps' No. 1. And Esposito did it with no help from second-place finisher James Hickman of Great britain, who touched nearly FIVE second slower in 1:59.65.
Admittedly Phelps, who will turn 18 this July and was barely old enough to drive at Fukuoka, is still the favorite. However, his French challenger is certainly showing that life can indeed begin after 30. (Are you reading this Mr. Popov?)
Malchow, defending Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder before Phelps broke his mark, is not to be counted out either. His pr of 1:55.03 from the World Championships is sixth-best performance all-time (third performer) and he beat Phelps last summer at the Pan-Pacs in Yokohama. Phelps' 1:54.86 from last summer's U.S. Nationals was the fastest American time for the year, however.
As for sub 1:55.0 clockings, Phelps leads with three to Esposito's two.
The World Championship schedule is extremely conducive for a record-breaking men's 200 fly The heats and semifinals are on Day 3 (July 22) with the finals the next evening. The 800 free relay, which Phelps would presumably be a part of (certainly off his winning 200 freestyle time of 1:47.37 at the U.S. Nationals two weeks ago), is also on Day 4. Phelps could swim in the relay heats that morning and still have plenty in reserve for that evening's 200 fly finals.
Or he could skip the relay entirely, but then, with Australia's Ian Thorpe having announced he's going for seven golds at Barcelona (greedy little devil), Phelps needs all the swims he can get to match Thorpedo!
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If Thorpe, defending champ Anthony Ervin of the United States, Popov and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband –world record-holder — think the 100 free gold is going to be divvied up among themselves, they'd better think again. Frenchman Fred Bousquet just may have some designs of his own on the top spot.
In the semis of the 100 free Bousquet, who won the NCAA 50 free as a freshman last month for Coach David Marsh's victorious Auburn Tigers, splashed to a pr 49.27, just .08 off Hoogie's leading 49.19 from the other semi. (He also swam the year's fourth-fastest 50 fly en route to the gold and a national record 24.17 opening night here.)
The 100 has the promise of being a very fast race as other leading qualifiers include Algeria's Salim Iles (49.37sf) and another Auburn product — Romain Barnier — who went 49.70.
The French record is 49.18 by Stephan Caron from the nationals a decade-plus ago, when Bousquet was likely tearing up the 8-and-under ranks.
Iles is African record-holder with his 49.00 from this meet a year ago. Barnier's pr is 49.21 from the French Championships in the winter of 2000; and the world-leader is Aussie Ashley Callus' 48.92 from the Victoria State Championships in Brisbane last January.
Hoogie's wr is 47.84 from the semis at Sydney. He won last year's Euros in 47.86, second on the all-time performances' list. He's still the only swimmer under 48.0 with a third 47+ (47.97) from the semis at Berlin in '02. (He won the gold at Sydney in 48.30.)
The other men's final was in the 50 breast, where 100 champ Hugues Duboscq won in 28.54 with a 28.48 best in the semis.
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In women's competition, Denmark's Louise Ornstedt kept up her hot swimming in the backstroke with her fourth NR of the meet; a world-leading 28.63 in the 50 back from the semis. France's Laure Manaudau won the other semi in 29.02.
The 200 free — where France's Solenne Figues set a national record in the semis (1:59.33) — saw Belarus' Elana Popchenka win in a world-leading 1:59.12 to Romania's Camelia Potec's 1:59.33. Figues was third (2:00.10).