IRVINE, Calif., May 28. SENSATIONAL swimming marked the first night of the Speedo Grand Challenge, which got under way Friday at the Woollett Aquatic Center. Less than two months from the start of the World Championships, there was plenty of excitement from the American contingent and the international stars that hopped in the fray.
While the star power was enough to make the competition sizzling, the format also played a role in the sparkle. Forcing the athletes to shine during the preliminaries, the championship final in each event featured a four-person clash for cash rewards. A number of those final-four matchups carried significant Olympic flavor.
The race of the night, arguably, was the men’s 50-meter freestyle, which included three finalists from the Athens Olympics and a longtime fixture on the international scene. Clocking 25.52, Croatia’s Duje Draganja walked away with top honors, as he touched the wall just ahead of Poland’s Bart Kizierowski (22.56).
The silver medalist in the 50 free in Athens, Draganja also bettered Jason Lezak (22.58) and Algeria’s Salim Iles (22.84). Lezak was the fifth-place finisher in Athens while Iles managed eighth place. Kizierowski, meanwhile, was ninth and just missed qualifying for the Olympic final.
With the British National Team competing at the meet, Joanne Jackson was dynamite in the 400 freestyle, as she touched the wall in an impressive 4:07.96. Jackson was followed by teammates Caitlin McClatchey (4:12.13) and Melanie Marshall (4:12.40). Japan’s Sachiko Yamada was fourth.
Two of the United States’ leading women dueled in the 200 individual medley, with Kaitlin Sandeno edging Natalie Coughlin. Registering a mark of 2:16.61, Sandeno narrowly defeated Coughlin, who checked in at 2:16.65. Both women were members of the United States’ world-record setting 800 free relay in Athens.
After Jessica Hardy went 1:08.81 in the prelims of the women’s 100 breaststroke, she looked like the woman to beat in the final. But, Britain’s Kate Haywood recorded a time of 1:08.26 in the championship race while Hardy took second in 1:09.60. Staciana Winfield was third in 1:09.84.
Other victories were earned by Tunisian Olympian Ous Mellouli in the men’s 200 individual medley (2:01.95) and Alena Popchanka in the women’s 50 free. Recently granted French citizenship, Popchanka, formerly of Belarus, was timed in 25.69, quicker than the 25.89 of Francesca Halsall of Great Britain. Meanwhile, Great Britain went one-two in the men’s 100 breast behind the duo of Adam Whitehead (1:03.25) and James Gibson (1:03.35).