By Josh Jeffrey
DURBAN South Africa, April 14. ALENA Popchanka, Ryk Neethling, and Roland Schoeman set the pool alight last week at the South African National Swimming Championships, held March 31 to April 6 at the Kings Park pool in Durban. The meet also served to qualify swimmers for the World Championships to be held this summer in Barcelona.
Popchanka of Belarus, a multiple medal winner at last summer's European Championships, swam the fastest times ever recorded on the continent in the 50 and 100 freestyles, and believe it or not, the 100 fly. Popchanka, who has only begun toying with the event recently, posted a swift 58.82 to serve notice that with a few more races under her belt, she could be challenging the throne of Inge De Bruijn. In all, Popchanka recorded wins in the 50 free (25.84), 100 fly (58.82), and 200 freestyle (2:00.97), and also posted the fastest 100 free (55.34) before scratching from finals.
Instead, the event served as the coming out party for South Africa's latest youth sensation, 15-year old Lauren Roets, who qualified for the World Championship team with a time of 55.98, dropping her personal best by nearly a second in winning.
Neethling, a University of Arizona graduate who has left behind the distance events in which he rose to prominence to prove his mettle as a sprinter, did so in grand fashion, breaking the South African record in the 100 freestyle in a time of 49.06 during semifinals. The old mark was 49.44, set by Jonty Skinner at the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia in August 1976. Though Skinner was easily the world's fastest 100m freestyler, he was not allowed to participate at the Montreal Olympics due to his country's policy of apartheid, a policy, ironically, that Skinner opposed.
In the finals, Neethling hung on to win in 49.52 over fellow former Wildcat teammate Roland Schoeman, second in 49.65. Both swims were good enough to qualify for the World Championship team.
Neethling and Schoeman also battled it out in the 50 free, where only two-hundredths separated the swimmers at the wall, with Schoeman having the better touch, 22.44 to 22.46. Schoeman also came within six-hundredths of breaking a South African record in the 100 fly, winning in 53.59, and qualifying him for a fourth individual event at the World Championships this summer after having also won the 50 fly (23.75).
The meet's other record-breaker was Gerhard Zandberg, who broke his SA standard in the 100 backstroke to win in a World qualifying time of 55.75.
Other swimmers qualifying for Worlds included South Africa's teenage workhorse Melissa Corfe, who took five national titles in winning the 200/400/800/1500 frees, and 200 back, only the latter of which was fast enough to qualify for Worlds. In that event, Corfe got the better of backstroke mainstay Charlene Wittstock, winning in 2:14.90 to Wittstock's 2:15.10. Wittstock also qualified for Worlds in the 50/100 back, taking those titles in 29.56 and 1:02.56 respectively.
Mandy Loots, another Springbok mainstay, took National titles in the 50/100/200 fly, and 200/400 IMs, but only qualified for Worlds in the 50 fly, winning in 27.72.
Other qualifiers include Olympic medalist Terence Parkin, who won the 200 breast (2:14.70), 200 IM (2:04.10) and 400 IM (4:25.40), and Brett Petersen, who won the 50 and 100 breaststrokes in 28.46 and 1:02.74, and Christopher Stewart, 2nd in the 50 breast at 28.85.