Swimming: Palmer's pressure rewarded by gold

PAUL PALMER dominated his rivals to win gold in dramatic fashion in the 400 metres freestyle last night.

In the first final on a humid night at the European championships in Istanbul, Palmer attacked the race from the start. Leading for the first 150 metres, he had slipped to third by the half-way mark.

The Italian Emiliano Brembilla, the defending champion, took the lead and was looking relaxed and confident. But Palmer was not finished. A dogged final 100 metres had him neck and neck with Brembilla in the closing stages. And it was Palmer who had the strength to win in a time of 3:48.12sec, just 0.1sec outside his British record of '93.

"I wasn't going out by myself so I let them catch up," said Palmer. "I kept my eye on them all and at the last turn I just went all out for home. It was a really good tactical race." Swimming in his preferred full body suit, completely covering his torso, arms and legs, Palmer is in an excellent position to add another Olympic medal to the silver he won in Atlanta in '96.

Britain's women won a second medal in a successful first day of these championships. The 4x100 freestyle team won bronze in a time of 3:43.55, and all were close to their best. Alison Sheppard led off the team and set a Scottish record in the 100 free of 56.21. Claire Huddart and Karen Pickering put the team in medal contention and Sue Rolph anchored with a 54.49 to miss the silver narrowly.

It was Pickering's ninth European bronze medal and she was in buoyant mood. "We're getting better and better," she said. "The Swedes will have to watch their backs next year."

Sweden finished runners-up to a powerful German team that dominated from the start. Rolph and German Sandra Volker will dispute the individual 100 metres title, the heats of which start this morning.

Semi-finals have been included in the programme at this year's championships for the first time since 1962. Races of 200 metres and below now have semis and it is a format which seems to add excitement to the finals sessions. The first two in each semi-final qualify by right, along with the next fastest four.

Mark Foster was one who enjoyed his progression to the final of the 50 metres butterfly today. "I paced myself," he said after a comfortable in qualification from his semi final. "The finish was awful but it's tomorrow that counts and there's only going to be two of us in it."

He will have to use every inch of his 6ft 7in frame to overcome the favourite, Pieter Van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, who is fastest into the final, and set the fastest-ever relay split, a staggering 47.31, to anchor their 4x100 relay team to gold. The British team was sixth, just 0.3sec outside the British record.

Thirty-year-old Martin Harris is well placed for a medal in tonight's final of the 100 metres backstroke. The Commonwealth champion is coached by his father, Ray, at the Tower Hamlets club in London, and qualified equal fourth in a field where just half a second separates seven of the eight finalists.

Commonwealth gold medallist in backstroke Katy Sexton, from Portsmouth, won her 200 metres backstroke semi-final in 2:14.52. The 16-year-old overhauled the defending champion, Cathleen Rund, in the final 50 metres. Ashton's Helen Don-Duncan joins Sexton in the final.