Swimming: Popov gold as De Bruin misses out

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The Independent Online
A dramatic victory and a dramatic defeat vied for the main billing at the European Championships here yesterday. The Russian Alex Popov won his fourth consecutive European title in the 100 metres freestyle, while Ireland's Michelle De Bruin failed in her attempt to win a possible five gold medals when she finished second in the 400m freestyle.

Popov's victory marked an astonishing recovery from a stabbing incident in Moscow a year ago which nearly took his life. Leading from the first stroke, Popov gave an exhibition in freestyle swimming, finishing in a new championship record time of 49.09sec. With the World Championships just six months away, Popov signalled that he is still the man to beat. The silver medal went to Sweden's Lars Forlander in 49.51 and the bronze to Oleg Roucklevitch, of Belarus, in 49.84.

"In the morning I was not sure my technique was there. So many things were going wrong in only my second race this year," Popov said. "So I went to the warm-down pool and worked on some things and this afternoon it was like I was born again," he said.

Stabbed in August, he was was back in the water in November. "My body was damaged but my soul wasn't," he said. "So the doctors fixed my body and off I go."

Popov's strength is his faultless technique which appears effortless. "The water is your friend," he said. "You don't have to fight it, you just share the same spirit with it and it will help you move."

His press conference was packed. When he was late for another appointment he politely said: "If you'll excuse me, I have to go." The respect he has for others makes him the most popular champion in the sport.

A surprise result in the first final of the evening saw De Bruin- the former Michelle Smith - beaten to gold by the German Dagmar Hase in a time of 4min 09.52sec. The Irish woman finished in 4:10.50, with the bronze going to another German, Kerstin Kielgass, in 4:10.89. De Bruin led until the last 50 metres when Hase, the Olympic silver medallist, turned the tables on last year's Olympic champion.

"I'm in Atlanta form," De Bruin, who had already won the 400m individual medley and the 200m freestyle, said, "but the conditions here are terrible. It's too hot and humid."

De Bruin next races tomorrow in the 200m individual medley and on Sunday in the 200m butterfly, the two races she won at the 1995 European Championships.

The best British performance of the day came from the 18-year-old Sarah Price, who set a new British record in the heats of the 100m backstroke and should be pleased with a fifth place in the final. Britain's affair with fourth place continued as Adam Ruckwood narrowly missed a medal in the 200m backstroke and the women's 4x100m freestyle team were unable to repeat the bronze they won in Vienna two years ago.

Everyone in the British team is hoping today will belong to Paul Palmer as he attempts to win his third gold medal in the 400m freestyle. If successful, he will be the first Briton to win three European golds since Ian Black in 1958.

Palmer faces an enthralling contest with the in-form Italian Emiliano Brembilla, who was fourth in Atlanta and who, like Palmer, is set on leaving here with the main prize.

"If I don't win, I will go home disappointed. It's my event," said Palmer, who finally believes he belongs at this level after nearly quitting the sport six months ago. "I feel like being here is my job. I train in a professional set up and for the first time I feel like I'm a world-class swimmer."

Results, Sporting Digest