Swimming: Thorpe strikes gold before Russians sink relay hopes

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The Independent Online

Ian Thorpe's hopes of making history by winning seven gold medals will have to wait another year, as it was gold and fourth for "the Thorpedo" on day one of swimming events at the World Championships here yesterday.

Competing in a temporary pool created in the Palau San Jordi, where the packed crowds are more used to seeing basketball or gymnastics than swimming, Thorpe delivered gold in the 400 metres freestyle. Winning in a time of 3min 42.58sec, he was comfortably clear of his compatriot, Grant Hackett, as Australia repeated their gold and silver from the World Championships in Fukuoka two years ago.

Scotland's Graeme Smith finished eighth in what was no more than a warm-up event for the distance specialist on a generally good day for Britain.

The highlight came in the semi-finals as James Gibson powered his way to second-fastest qualifier for today's finals in the 100m breaststroke, equalling his British record of 1min 00.47sec. At the 50m mark, Gibson was nearly half a second under world-record pace and hoping to become the first Briton and only the second man ever to break the one-minute barrier. But the early pace took its toll as the 23-year-old faded in the closing strokes. "I felt strong,'' he said, "although technically it was bad in the second 50 and I know I can go better.''

In front of him is Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who thrilled the crowd with his 59.98sec, making him the favourite for today's final in the absence of Roman Sloudenov, whose world record stands at 59.94sec but may well be the first to fall at these championships.

Mark Foster atoned for a weak heat swim by cruising into today's final of the 50m butterfly. The 33-year-old dislikes morning swims but brushed off his earlier lethargy to stop the clock in 23.76sec, just a quarter of a second shy of his British record, to qualify for the final in fourth place. Foster's effort was especially encouraging as he was one of the slowest off the blocks.

"I'm always better in an evening swim,'' he said, "and I knew I would be faster in the semi-final. I'm easily into the final and it will be anyone's race. I feel confident.''

But there was enormous disappointment for the women's 4x100m freestyle relay team. Joint silver medallists from two years ago, the team were hoping to rise to the rostrum again, but Alison Sheppard, usually one of the strongest of the quartet, led off in a time of 56.42sec, fully a second slower than her best, and despite a determined effort from her team-mates, the damage had already been done.

Her fellow team member Karen Pickering said: "It was too much to make up but we hope to make up for it in the 4x200m team."

The gold went to the United states, with Jenny Thompson swimming a superb anchor leg to haul them from third to first and relegate the defending champions, Germany, and Australia to silver and bronze

Almost as popular as Thorpe is Alex Popov, now in the twilight of his career, who won gold when anchoring his Russian team to their first-ever World Championship victory in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay.

The United States have won nine of the 10 gold medals for this event in the history of the World Championships and been beaten only by Australia two years ago.

But the Russians finally found three freestylers good enough to support Popov to score an enormously popular victory. The Americans had to settle for silver while France took a surprising bronze as Australia struggled to finish only fourth.

Perhaps the performance of the night came from the Frenchman Fred Bousquet, who recorded the second-fastest relay split ever, 47.03sec, overtaking Thorpe in the process.

The most courageous gold-winner was Hannah Stockbauer, 21, of Germany, who held off a world-class field in the women's 400m freestyle to give confidence to a squad coming here under pressure after dominating the European Championships in Berlin last year.