By Stephen J. Thomas
MELBOURNE, Australia. August 28. THE majority of the competitors had just come down from intense training so times at this weekend's Melbourne Grand Prix–the final tune-up before the Olympic Games open in less than three weeks–should not be taken at face value. However, as is often the case, several individuals posted some noteworthy times.
Russia's Alex Popov reinforced the fact that he is a class act by taking out the sprint freestyle double with consummate ease. He toyed with the opposition in
much the same way he did with the expectant media. In the 100m free he clocked 49.59, to comfortably beat training partner, Michael Klim (50.22)and Algerian Olympian Salim Iles (50.86). In the 50 free, Popov clocked 22.34 to beat Australian record holder, Brett Hawke (22.93) and Iles(22.99).
Ever the perfectionist, the reigning Olympic champion was disappointed with his start in the 50 free and admitted he had taken 32 strokes rather than his normal 30 for the distance. He avoided answering
direct questions relating to his chances of taking out the Olympic sprint double for the third time simply saying with a wry smile, "you will see soon."
Popov will continue his training at his home base in Canberra without his coach, Gennadi Touretski. Touretski, who is now an Australian citizen, has
coached Popov for ten years. But as part of the Australian team's coaching staff, he will be at the Aussie camp here in Melbourne.
Dual world record-holder, Ian Thorpe, was advised by his coach Doug Frost to skip the 400 free at this meet. Concerned he did not want the 17-year-old to take any risks in his preparation three weeks out from the Games he opted for the 100 and 200 free. He finished fifth in 100 behind Popov in a solid swim of 51.11 but stamped his authority in the 200 free
with an easy victory in a time of 1:48.90 over British champion Paul Palmer(1:50.46) and teammate Grant Hackett (1:50.51). Thorpe said it was great to know he could swim a time like that while he was still in heavy training. "With three weeks to go, things are looking good," said Thorpe,who admitted he was getting excited about the thought of contesting his first Olympics. "I have done some great sets in training and I'm ready to swim well."
In the absence of Thorpe, Grant Hackett won the 400 freestyle in 3:51.14 from a fast finishing Kieren Perkins (3:52.92) with Daniel Kowalski third in 3:54.32. Both Hackett and Perkins passed on the 1500 free with only three weeks to the Olympics.
Matt Welsh looked very impressive in taking out the backstroke double. In front of his home crowd, he recorded his second fastest times in both events. Welsh, who clocked a world-class 54.67 to win the 100 back, went on to register his third swim under two minutes for the 200 back winning in 1:59.54. The 23-year-old Victorian is in the best shape of his life and
should at least provide some opposition over the shorter distance for American world record holder Lenny Krayzelburg.
Ryan Mitchell clocked his second fastest time ever to take out the 200 breaststroke in 2:13.60, his best time since winning at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. Mitchell finished second in the 100 breast behind
Great Britain's rising star, Darren Mew. Mew won in a time of 1:02.60, from Mitchell (1:02.83) and Australia's only individual Olympic entrant in this
event, Phil Rogers (1:03.90).
Aussies Geoff Huegill and Michael Kilm, the world's top two ranked swimmers for the 100 fly, continued their close rivalry with only eight hundredths
of a second separating them at the finish. Huegill (0.53.48) repeated his victory over Kilm (53.56) at the Australian Olympic trials in May. Neither
swimmer felt the result was significant at this stage in their preparation. Klim said he felt the two were very similar physically and that the race in three weeks would be won by superior strength.
Aussie Justin Norris received a confidence boost when he won the 200 fly in 2:00.15, from the more experienced Englishman, James Hickman (2:00.29).
Matt Dunn won the 400 individual medley in 4:21.40 from fellow Aussie Grant McGregor (4:23.74) but McGregor turned the tables on the triple Olympian to
win the 200 in 2:02.33 over Dunn's 2:03.09.
Olympic butterfly champion Susie O'Neill said she was lacking motivation coming into the weekend's competition and this was reflected in her poor
showing (4th placing) in the 200 free (2:02.63) and her fifth (1:02.14) behind South African Mandy Loots (1:00.59) and Aussie Petria Thomas (1:01.18) in the 100 fly. However, she put up an outstanding effort in the 200m fly, the event in which she claimed the world record in May, recording an easy win in a time of 2:08.58.
O'Neill had been touched by the death of her former coach Bernie Wakefield from cancer having attended the funeral earlier in the week. Wakefield (aged 71) had coached O'Neill from the age of nine through to twenty-one before she had moved to her current coach, Scott Volkers.
Olympic freestyle relay rookie Elka Graham, swam just 0.04 outside her personal best to win the 200 freestyle in smart 2:00.15 from teammate Giaan
Rooney (2:01.11) and South African Helene Muller (2:01.86). Graham backed up to take the 100 free in a personal best 56.35, from Helene Muller(56.37) and veteran British Olympian Karen Pickering (56.69).
The women's 400 freestyle was a closely contested affair, right down to the final touch, which saw the Aussie Olympic reps for this event, Sarah-Jane D'Arcy and Kasey Giteau, dead-heat in a time of 4:15.44 from Briton Rebecca Cooke (4:18.75).
Aussie teenager sensation Leisel Jones took the breaststroke double by winning the 100 in 1:08.89, edging out South African Sarah Poewe (1:08.99) and the 200 in 2:27.33.
Jennifer Reilly (Aust) took out the individual medley double with a 4:46.73 in 400 and 2:18.93 in the 200.
Commonwealth 50 freestyle record-holder Alison Sheppard of Great Britain won the one lap sprint in 25.90 from fellow Brit, Rosalind Brett (26.35).
Other British competitors also had success, with Rebecca Cooke winning the 800 freestyle in 8:43.39 from Aussies Rachel Harris (8:45.20) and Hayley
Lewis (8:47.06), and Joanna Fargus the 200 backstroke in 2:13.44.
Aussie Giaan Rooney won the 100m backstroke in a solid 1:02.49.