BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA, DEC. 28. WHILE his country is mired in financial insolvency and teters on the brink of economic ruin, one Argentine is definitely on the 40-karat gold standard.
He's 22-year-old sprinter Jose Martin Meolans, who at last week's Brazilian Nationals — which also doubled as a qualifier for next April's World Short Course Championships in Moscow — was as good as gold and
hotter than fire.
Meolans raced to wins in the 50-100 frees and 100 fly (personal and national records of 21.75/47.28 and 52.35), with the latter also establishing a South
American record too. In the process, Meolans vaulted to the upper echelon of the world rankings in both sprints and showed he'll be a force to be reckoned with come the showdown at the ol' waterhole next spring in the Russian capital.
Meolans also proved to his erstwhile Brazilian foes, Fernando Scherer, Gustavo Borges and current USC sprint star Rodrigo Castro, that he's the "real deal" and not just a poseur as some of his opponents have suggested.
Scherer is South American record-holder in the short course 50 free (21.44). Borges holds the continent's 100-200 records (47.14-1:44.48), and is a former
University of Michigan All-America who "earned his spurs" while training under Coach Greg Troy at Bolles School in Florida more than a decade ago. Borges was also a key member of the Wolverines' NCAA Championship team from six years ago — the only Big 10 school to win the title in more than a quarter-century — and was a Olympic medalist in both Barcelona in '92 and Atlanta in '96.
(Troy has moved on too, becoming the women's and men's coach at the University of Florida.)
Meolans' 50 free clocking would have placed him fourth at the European Championships the week before in Antwerp, and he would have earned the silver medal in the 100 free behind Sweden's Stefan Nystrand's winning
47.15. His fly time would have been among the top six.
Trained by veteran coach Orlando Moccagatta and having first worked with Daniel Garamaldi in Buenos Aires, the 6-3 Merolans says his hero has always been the
"Russian Rocket," 50 free world record-holder Alex Popov — the only man to ever win back to-back Big O's 50-100 free titles.
"I've always admired Popov, not just for his swimming success but for the way he has proved to be such a great champion for the last decade," Meolans told swiminfo.com South American correspondent Jorge F. Aguado. "His form, his stroke, his power…that's how I want to be able to swim my races."
Meolans will get his chance to face Popov in Moscow in four months and he's looking forward to the match-up.
"For sure it will be very difficult to make finals with all the great sprinters from all over the world, but I believe in my ability and I feel confident I can be competitive with anyone — Popov, the American Anthony Ervin, the Dutchman van den Hoogenband or the Swede Nystrand. Plus I hope to be able to beat Borges and Scherer, who are my main South American rivals."
Meolans currently ranks third globally (performer-performance) in the 100 free [scm] with only Nystrand and America's Jason Lezak (47.18) faster. In the half-century he's 18th (performances) and eighth performer) but his coach says he can be better.
"I won't predict a time but I believe Jose can be faster in the 50," Noccagatta says. "His 47.2 100 was not a perfect swim either so there's room for improvement, work to be done."
Meolans also holds the Argentine record for the 200 free — 1:45.85 from the Arena Meeting in Berlin last February — and will be aiming for Borges'South
American mark of 1:44.46 at that meet in two months plus in Moscow. His 1:45.8 ranks him ninth and 13th globally (performer-performance) this year.
"I think he can capture all three records — 50, 100, 200 freestyles — before this current season is completed," says swiminfo.com South American correspondent Jorge F. Aguado. "His 52.3 100 fly record also is by no means an absolute."
Meolans was one of the few men to reach the semis in the 50, 100 and 200 frees at last summer's lcm World Championships in Fukuoka, and set prs-NRs of 22.31-1:49.34 in the process. Earlier he had set a national standard of 49.57 in the 100 during the Spanish World Championship Trials in April at Zaragosa.
He wants to take the next step and not only gain the finals in Moscow but earn a medal, as he did two years ago when he won a silver in the 50 free at the World Championships in Hong Kong.
"He saw what it took to make top eight in Japan and that has served as a motivating force to final at Berlin [Arena Meeting] and Moscow," Aguado explains.
"He's very determined to prove he's world-class."
Meolans also has his eye on Scherer's 22.22-48.69 50-100 free lcm South American records, plus perhaps Borges' 1:48.06 200 free SA mark that he swam in the Atlanta finals. Scherer's record-setting times were
done at the now-defunct Goodwill Games in 1998 on Long Island.
"First things first," Moccagatta says. "We want him to final at Moscow in an event or two, perhaps win a medal and then focus his efforts on preparation for the World Championships in 2003 at Barcelona and then the Athens Olympics. Records are secondary to winning."
Meolans won a silver at the 1999 Pan-Ams in the 100 fly (pr-NR 54.03) some seven tenths behind Venezuela's Francisco Sanchez's 53.33. A former Arizona State All-America, Sanchez's time is the South American record.
"Sanchez was the superior flyer in that race but Jose's stroke has improved greatly the intervening two years and I think he may surprise some people in the next few seasons," says Aguado.
Meolans' NR in the 50 at Fukuoka, 22.33, will rank him 11th and tied for 20th (performance) for the season, his highest global finish and the highest for any South American swimmer in any event.
"He's honored to be the best on the continent but he wants to be among the best in the world, that's his goal," Aguado adds.
Meolans has had a good winter, going 21.91/48.05 at the World Cup in Rio last month, then 21.85/47.74 at Edmonton and 21.75/47.28 in Brazil last week.
However, he's got a ways to go before he's a threat to Great Britain's Mark Foster's wr in the 50 (21.13), Popov's 100 (46.74) or Australia's Ian Thorpe's 1:41.10 200.
"Patience, patience," laughs Aguado.
The last Argentine Olympic swimming gold medalist was 400 free champ Alberto Zorrilla at the 1932 Games in the City of Angels. The last Argentine to set a world record — in fact the only Argentine to ever set a world-record since the establishment of 50 meter standards in 1957 — was former Stanford star Luis Nicolao in the 100 fly (1962 at Rio).
Since the inception of the FINA World Championships, only backstroker Conrado Porta (200 at Berlin in 1978) and open water 25K specialist Gabriel Chaillou (bronze medal at Perth in 1998) have finaled or won a medal.
Freestyler Jeanette Campbell (100) won the silver at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Meolans was fourth in the 50 and fifth in the 100 at the inaugural sc World Championships in Goteborg four years ago, then moved up to silver in the 50 at Hong Kong.
"Now it's time for some Moscow gold," Moccagatta smiles.
Argentine swimming is on the rise. Backstroker-flyer Pablo Abal, another product of Coach Mike Chasson's Arizona State program, is quickly becoming world-class as are IMer-flyer Georgina Bardach (who set SA records in the 200 fly-400 IM in Rio); and Florencia Szigeti, who became the first South American woman under 2:00.0 for the 200 free with her 1:59.43 at the Argentine Short Course Championships in Santa Fe on September 28, and is an important part of Chasson's ASU women's team this season.
If Meolans does manage to stand atop the victory podium in Moscow he'll become a bigger national hero than former soccer superstar Diego Maradonna — or perhaps even a certain Argentine native who moved to Cuba, became the island nation's foreign minister, and then met an unfortunate demise in Bolivia some 35 years ago.
— Bill Bell
JOSE MEOLANS' LONG COURSE PROGRESSION
YEAR 50 FREE 100 FREE 200 FREE
1997 22.63 50.23 1:50.72
1998 22.95 50.32 NT
1999 22.96 49.94 NT
2000 22.89 49.66 NT
2001 22.31 49.57 1:49.34