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Tuesday, September 19, 2000
Swimming News Online
FRESH START FOR PIETER THE GREAT
COURAGE ON THE BLOCKS

Fresh start for Pieter the Great

The morning after the night he sank the Thorpedo, Pieter van den Hoogenband showed no signs of fatigue as he motored into pole position for the semi-finals of the 100 metres freestyle, his time of 48.64sec just 0.01sec shy of the Olympic record held by Matt Biondi of the US since 1988.

It was like a fresh start for the Dutchman, who cruised to a time that would have won every world title in history as though he was simply warming up. That standards will be rewritten in the semi-finals tonight is in no doubt, the only question being how many of the big guns of the sprint world will dip below Biondi's best in an event that saw a record 17 men beat 50 seconds.

After Van den Hoogenband came Michael Klim, who set a world record of 48.18sec, leading Australia off on its way to victory over the United States and the world record in the 4 x 100 metres freestyle on Saturday, and his training partner in Canberra, Alexander Popov, the Russian aiming to become the first male swimmer to win the same title at three Olympic Games.

It could be a great night for Australia. The start of the last heat of the 200m butterfly was delayed as the crowd refused to be silenced as they hailed the golden girl of the Telstra Dolphins squad, Susan O'Neill.

O'Neill is the defending champion and world record holder over 200m butterfly, the final of which will be raced tomorrow. Tonight, she will chase what could be the first of three gold medals as she races as favourite in lane four in the 200 metres freestyle. Whatever the result, O'Neill will be back in the hunt within the hour in the semi-final of the 200 metres butterfly.

Both British women made it through to the semi-finals of that event, Georgina Lee, coached by Gerry Thain at the Camphill Edwardians club, establishing the best time of her life, 2min 11.09sec for eleventh place. She will need the courage of one of her distant relatives - Thomas Lee I, who fought for Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby - to make it through to the final eight tonight.

Alongside her in the semi-finals will be British champion Margaretha Pedder, coached by Chris Nesbit at Portsmouth Northsea. Pedder's 2min 11.59sec was good enough for 15th place but she is likely to need to break her national record of 2min 10.57sec to achieve her dream of racing in the same Olympic final as O'Neill tomorrow. As part of her preparation for Sydney, Pedder has trained with O'Neill on the Gold Coast.

Where Britain was pleased to get two women through to the semi-finals, it was left lamenting the fate of Adam Whitehead, of Coventry. He was the latest British casualty, finishing 24th in the 200 metres breaststroke in 2min 17.16sec, more than 2 seconds off his best time. A former European short-course champion, Whitehead must now work for another four years if he is ever to reach his undoubted potential as a world-class breaststroke swimmer.

One who did make it through to the next stage was the Hungarian Norbert Rosza, who won the silver medal behind Mike Barrowman, of the US, and ahead of Britain's Nick Gillingham, who won the bronze medal, in what remains the fastest 200 metres breaststroke race in history back in 1992.

The heats of the 4 x 200 metres showed just how extensive the pool of Australian talent is among male freestylers. Relying on two 1,500-metres specialists, Grant Hackett, the world champion, and Daniel Kowalski, who won bronze medals over 200 and 400 metres and a silver medal in the 1,500 metres in 1996, the host nation's morning quartet raced three seconds clear of the next-best qualifiers.

Tonight's final, when Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim will join two of those who swam in the morning heats, promises the same kind of dominance, and the world record will be under serious threat. The last time Australia won the Olympic title was in Melbourne in 1956.

British eyes will be on the men's 4 x 200 metres freestyle quartet which includes Paul Palmer and James Salter, finalists in the race between Pieter Van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe. The British men have an outside chance of a medal, as does Stephen Parry in the 200 metres butterfly.

Parry, coached by Dave Calleja at Stockport, will race in lane 1 of the 200 metres butterfly final next to Franck Esposito, the world champion from France. The race also contains defending Olympic champion, Denis Pankratov and the world record holder Tom Malchow, and is likely to be one of the most tightly contested races in the pool.

Craig Lord
Swimming Correspondent
The Times

Courage on the blocks

Eric Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, learnt to swim in January when his nation established its first aquatics federation. Yesterday he stepped onto his blocks in baggy blue trunks, drawstrings dangling and untied, to make his Olympic debut over two lengths of the pool in freestyle.

It was a nervous moment for the 22-year-old, who fumbled with his goggles with the dexterity of a child handling a pen for the first time. Two lengths amounted to 100 metres but Moussambani, one of 11 from his country in Sydney, had only ever raced over 50 metres before in a 20-metre long pool, and the Olympic waters of the Sydney International Aquatic Centre stretched out before him like a marathon course.

Beside him were two bodysuited swimmers, Karim Bare, of Niger, and Farkhod Oripov, of Tajikistan - all three invited to Sydney under the friendship funding programme organised by Fina, swimming’s global authority.

The starter called the swimmers to their marks. Moussambani, 5ft 7in, held steady. The taller bodysuits wobbled, fell in and were cast out of the race under the one-start rule, their Olympic Games over. The 18,000-crowd booed but the judge would have none of it.

Moussambani would plough a lonely lane for his finest 1mins 52.7sec, though it felt like an hour. Equatorial Guinea’s aquatic answer to Eddie the Eagle - Eric the Eel - churned the lane in which Ian Thorpe had raced to a silver medal in 1min 45sec over double the distance the day before.

At first, the crowd clapped politely. But the mood turned upon Moussambani’s turn, for here was a man with an Olympic courage bigger than Thorpe’s feet. Confusion reigned for a moment - was he facing up or down, and did he know himself? A sense of relief washed over the pool as the man from Molabu surfaced to take a breath.

The largely Australian crowd - nearly every man, woman and child probably capable of swimming faster than Moussambani - warmed to the occasion and lifeguards stood by poised to plunge in for the rescue as the swimmer’s stroke shortened, and his legs sank from the surface. With a final desperate lunge, Moussambani was safe. It would be some while before he could get dry; an hour after clambering shattered on to the deck, he had still not made it through the gauntlet of cameras, microphones and media.

His time would have won the 100 metres at the world masters championships - in the 100 to 105 year group, the speed of a 97-year-old from the United States still a target on his way to Athens 2004. Moussambani, who works in information technology, sent “kisses and hugs to the whole crowd”, and, speaking in Spanish and French, added: “I could hear them cheering and it helped me to get to the end. I didn’t want to swim 100 metres but my coach told me that I should do it anyway - I thought it was too much but thanks to the crowd, I made it.”

His mother and three younger siblings - his father is dead - would watch his great moment on television the next day. They had already seen him once. “I carried the flag at the opening ceremony because they needed a small swimmer to do it, and nobody knew who I was. But now, when I go home, everyone will know me,” he said.

Moussambani was later to be found celebrating his newfound fame. “I’m going to jump and dance all night long in celebration of my personal triumph,” said the slowest swimmer in Sydney who became more famous than Thorpe for an hour at the Olympic Games yesterday.

Craig Lord
Swimming Correspondent
The Times