FUKUOKA, Japan. July 20. The Aussies have hired bodyguards to protect 18 year-old Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim is a definite "go" for the Championships, Ed Moses is looking forward to duelling Russia's Roman Sludnov and US coach Greg Troy has cricized FINA for holding too many world championship meets. These are the highlights of today's World Championship round-up.
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The Australian swimming team has been forced to hire bodyguards because of Japan's obsession with Ian Thorpe.
Ian Hanson, the Australian team's media spokesman, said six security staff had been hired to protect the swimming sensation from the hordes of teenage girls that follow him around the city.
"We were fully aware of Thorpe-mania long before we came here, but it's been bigger than we expected and we've had to take precautions to protect Ian and the rest of the Australian team," said Hanson.
Thorpe is a national hero in Australia after winning three gold medals at last year's Sydney Olympics but is even more popular in Japan, where he is treated like a pop-star. His face is plastered all over billboards, he is featured in television ads and the girls just love him.
Dozens of teenagers lined the arrivals hall at Fukuoka's international airport when he arrived on Monday and young girls have been staking out his city hotel just to catch a glimpse of him.
Thorpe, who has visited Japan several times before, said he was flattered by all the attention but could not understand why they would be so besotted with him.
"I enjoy my time that I spend here, and I have no basis to explaining the situation that I'm in," he said.
"For me it's not a detrimental thing. I think it's actually quite encouraging…that leading into meet, I have other people supporting me."
Thorpe said Japan's love affair with him was mutual. The Sydney teenager made his international debut at the 1997 Pan Pacific championships in Fukuoka when he was just 14 and says the country holds fond memories for him.
Thorpe, now the most recognizable face in world swimming, is attempting to win an unprecedented seven gold medals at these championships.
He is favored to win the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle titles for which he holds all three world records and is also entered in the 100m and three relays.
Meanwhile, Aussie sprinter/flyer Michael Klim was cleared to compete at the World Championships after his injured ankle showed definite signs of improvement.
Klim, who won a record seven medals including four golds at the 1998 World Championships, was in doubt for the event after he twisted his ankle while playing basketball earlier this month. He has been undergoing daily physiotherapy ever since and was finally given approval to race yesterday.
Klim, who won two relay golds at last year's Sydney Olympics but failed to win an individual title, has dropped the freestyle to concentrate on the butterfly, an event in which he holds the world record.
He will defend the 100 meter fly title he won in 1998 and will also contest the 50m, which has been added to the program for the first time. Klim will also swim in the three relays.
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Losing his world 100 meter breaststroke record to Russian Roman Sloudnov last month has given Ed Moses the perfect motivation to extract revenge at the World Championships, Moses said today.
Moses and Sloudnov will start as clear favorites in Tuesday's final at Fukuoka's Marine Messe venue, but both men will also be battling for the world record they have held alternately over the past year.
"It definitely lit my fire for this championship to lose the world record. You know that the men's 100 is going to be the fastest race here," Moses said.
Moses said his experience at last year's Sydney Olympics, where he took silver behind Sloudnov in the 100 meters, was the "excuse I needed to train flat out" for the World Championships.
"Some people weren't satisfied with their performance at the Olympics and wanted to prove a point. My motivation was to train with the mind set that I was only second-best in the world," said Moses.
Asked about the world record, which currently stands at 59.97 seconds, the 21-year-old said he felt no pressure to break the one-minute mark.
"Breaking the minute barrier would be great, but I'd rather be world champion," said Moses, who held the world record for three months earlier this year with a national record 1:00.29, set in Austin at the U.S. national championships.
Despite insisting his aim in Fukuoka is simply to swim another personal best, Moses acknowledged that the world record will "probably fall" when he and Sloudnov resume their rivalry next week.
Not mentioned was Domenico Fioravanti, the unheralded Italian who beat both Moses and Sloudnov at the Olympics in Sydney last September. The Italian undoubtedly has plans of his own – plans that don't include losing to either of his rivals.
Meanwhile, the head coach of the U.S. team criticized the sport's world governing body, FINA, for staging the world championships every two years instead of every four. His views reflected the views of many of the top coaches from around the world.
Gregg Troy said that the decision had reduced the importance of the championships and cheapened the value of the medals.
"This is a meet we really didn't need to have," Troy said. "It is still important to a lot of people but it's too soon after the Olympics and that's why so many top swimmers have decided not to come.
"My opinion is, and a lot of other people share this view, they should have left it at four years."
Although the American team is still expected to finish on top of the medal count, some of the country's biggest stars – including Olympic champions Lenny Krayzelburg, Tom Dolan, Gary Hall Jr, Misty Hyman and Brooke Bennett – are not here. Krayzelburg chose to compete at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel; Dolan, Hall and Hyman are just rounding into shape after long post-Olympic layoffs; and Bennett did not attend the US nationals, the selection meet for the Woreld Championships, due to illness.
Several more big names including Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Amy Van Dyken have retired since the Olympics.
"In the long-term, I think the Championships will lose their luster, which is a real shame," Troy said.
"You do need a big meet in between Olympic and World Championship years but that's what the Pan-Pacs and the Europeans were for.
"I wasn't involved in the politics at the time but I know that U.S. Swimming were opposed to changing it when it was already working well."
Troy said the Americans had also had an unusually short preparation for the meet. They spent almost a month together in camp before the Sydney Olympics, but have had only five days to prepare for Japan.
"It's been difficult getting the right chemistry going but they're starting to get enthusiastic now," he said. "This is not the Olympics but it is still the World Championships and we have to treat it seriously."
Despite all the problems, Troy said he still expected the American team to do well and he picked out teenagers Michael Phelps and Aaron Peirsol as potential stars in the making.
"We want to do well at this meet and we expect to do well," Troy said. "This is an opportunity for some of our younger swimmers and they're keen to show what they can do."
Here in Japan, the world press is just discovering Baltimore's Michael Phelps, who just turned 16 last month. Phelps is the new great hope of American swimming and, if the experts are right, he could be the sport's next superstar.
"His potential is limitless, he's really quite amazing," U.S. coach Gregg Troy said. "He could be anything he wants to be."
Phelps competed at last year's Sydney Olympics as a 15-year-old, becoming the youngest American male swimmer to make the Olympics since 1932.
He finished fifth in the 200 meter butterfly, but hardly created a ripple because of all the hype over Thorpe. But in March this year, Phelps forced the swimming world to sit up and take notice of his incredible talent when he lowered Tom Malchow's 200m butterfly world record of one minute 55.18 seconds with a new time of 1:54.92. In so doing, he becaame the youngest American male ever to set a world swimming record.
"It was very special for me to be the first man to go under the 1:55 barrier but I want to improve on that," said Phelps. "I like to set myself goals and one of my goals is to break that record."
Although Phelps was given little hope of winning a medal in Sydney, he was disappointed not to get one, despite swimming a personal best time of 1:56.50 in the final. So, instead of taking a break after the Games, he went straight back into training, working on his strength and technique and getting ready for the World Championships in Japan where his duel with Malchow is expected to be a highlight of the meet.
"It was a lifetime dream to swim at the Olympics, to feel the floor rumble when Ian Thorpe walked out in front of 18,000 people really was amazing," Phelps said.
"But I was still disappointed not to get a medal so I used that to motivate me. I thought it was a realistic goal and I was hard on myself for not achieving it."
Phelps returned to training two days after getting home from the Olympics and began preparing himself for an assault on Malchow's record at the U.S. national championships in Austin, Texas.
His plan to get the record was simple. He would try to stick with Malchow in the first 150m of the race then use his strength to overhaul him down the final length.
"I was feeling good, I thought I could break the world record," he said. "I was right with Malchow the whole way, and when I took my first breath coming off the third wall, I heard the crowd going nuts so I knew we were on pace and I just went for it."
Phelps is only competing in one event at next week's world championships but said he wanted to expand his program before the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"I'm pretty good at backstroke and medley as well," he said. Last March, he swam 2:02 and 4:15 for the two medley events – far faster than anyone else his age has ever swum. He also is a world-class middle-distance and distance swimmer.
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Brits Hope to Improve,
British swimming officials, who last year witnessed the nation's worst Olympics in the pool in more than 60 years, are hoping the World Championships will usher in a new era of excellence.
Bill Sweetenham, the Australian who took over as National Performance Director after last September's Sydney Games, was keen not to raise hopes too high as swimmers prepared for the main events, which start on Sunday. But he underlined the hopes of British swimming that an upturn in performances in Japan could build momentum through to the Athens Olympics in 2004.
"We're going into the meet without anyone coming off last year being ranked in the (world) top five, so it's a pretty tough call on the swimmers and coaching staff," Sweetenham told a news conference in the team's hotel.
"It was written in a report recently that, judging by Great Britain's performances over the last four years, it would take 60 or 70 years for us to challenge the world in swimming, if we improve at the same rate.
"We think we can shorten that by a hell of a lot. That's our goal…we feel this is the start of a new era for British swimming."
Sweetenham imposed tough selection standards for Fukuoka, with swimmers needing a time at least matching the 12th in the world rankings in the Olympic year of 2000 to qualify. A lean squad of just 27 is the result.
Men's head coach Ian Turner said that in the past the goal of British swimmers had been to be selected for an Olympics. "The change in the last 12 months has been significant," Turner said. The long-term goal of this current team is to make a final, a British record or a personal best," he said.
Turner, mindful of Britain's failure last September to win a single Olympic swimming medal for the first time since 1936, stressed that the main goal lay three years from now — the Athens Olympics. "We've got to keep in focus the fact that we didn't get any medals at the last Olympics," he said.
"The team certainly does not lack professionalism from the athletes and coaches. "We've prepared the swimmers to get the absolute best out of themselves. We want to come out of this meet having everybody on the team optimising their performance.
"We're coming from a long way behind. It'll take a super-human effort. But the team feels confident, the team feels good."
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…And, of course, from Equatorial Guinea…
Eric Moussambani, who swam the slowest 100 meters freestyle in Olympic history last year, said on Friday that the world will see a much-improved swimmer during the World Championships.
He has already slashed more than 30 seconds off his personal best after his famous appearance in Sydney last September and aims to break 30 seconds in the 50 metres for the first time.
Moussambani, nicknamed "Eric the Eel" by Swimming World's Craig Lord after taking 1:52.72 to complete his 100 meter heat in Sydney, has entered the 50 meter sprint in Fukuoka due to a shoulder injury that has prevented him from swimming the longer distance.
"I've been training in Spain with a coach," said Moussambani, who comes from tiny Equatorial Guinea in western Africa. "I've got a new technique now and I want to go under 30 seconds for the first time."
Moussambani, who will swim in a body suit after landing a sponsorship deal with Speedo, said that he has worked hard to change his style since almost drowning at the Olympics.
"I don't think the suit helps, it is just the technique. Now I swim with my arms straighter," he said. "I want people to see how I have improved."
Moussambani said he has received advice from swimming stars such as Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim and Pieter van den Hoogenband since shooting to stardom for his efforts in Sydney.
"They told me I have to continue to train hard to improve my swimming," said Moussambani. "Klim, especially, told me never to give up. Meeting them was very important for my career."
Moussambini, who used to train in rivers and a 20-metre hotel pool back home, said he wants to be able to break 60 seconds for the 100 free by the 2004 Athens Olympics.
His current personal best is 1:18 – more than 30 seconds slower than van den Hoogenband's world record.
In the 50, Moussambani has slashed 15 seconds off his old personal best of 45 seconds. Russian Alexander Popov's world record stands at 21.64.
However, Moussambani is undeterred.
"My goal is that nobody at home will say that I don't belong in the Olympics," he said.
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