Swimming: Rolph rallies to conquer Europe

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The Independent Online
IT HAS taken 37 years, but with her fist clenched in victory, Sue Rolph finally accepted the title of European champion last night - the first time for a British woman since Anita Lonsbrough took gold in 1962.

On a night when the sport's history was rewritten in Istanbul, the result to echo around the swimming world was the defeat of the greatest swimmer of his generation, the Russian Alex Popov. Pieter Van den Hoogenband finally put a stop to a streak that has seen Popov undefeated in the final of the 100 metres freestyle in any major championship since 1991.

In winning Britain's second gold of these championships, Rolph becomes the first British woman to win the European 100 metre freestyle title. Quickest off the blocks, she was 0.7sec behind at the turn.

"I couldn't see Inge [De Bruijn] who was two lanes away," she said. "Off the turn I put my head down and thought `now just go'." And as De Bruijn faded, Rolph stormed past her rivals to touch first in a British record time of 55.03sec.

"I wanted to go under 55 but that was fast enough for the European championship and that's all that matters. And I will be one year stronger next year," Rolph said. It is a significant step for the Newcastle swimmer, who yesterday beat two of the serious threats for Olympic medals next year in Bruijn and Germany's Sandra Volker.

But it was the first race of the night which electrified an expectant crowd in a packed stadium. "I have finally beaten the great Alex Popov!" were the words of Pieter Van den Hoogenband, who ended the Russian's domination of the 100m freestyle in dramatic fashion. His new championship record time of 48.47 is the third fastest in history, behind Popov and Matt Biondi.

Van den Hoogenband was beside himself with the achievement. "I am in a dream," he said. "He is the greatest swimmer ever and has done everything a swimmer can do. I feel ecstatic."

Popov was handling defeat in enigmatic fashion. Taking a long time to warm down on his own before bringing himself to face the predictable media frenzy, eager to hear what he had to say, he was a man of few words.

"It's no problem for me," he said. "I have four golds already, I can't be greedy." Pressed further on his performance he was puzzling. "I don't know what my limit is. Today was not full out. I don't know what full out is. On the way to the Olympics, sometimes you have to hold back to take a step forward. We have some things we can try for next season."

Based at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, Popov has a wife and young child. Always charismatic and endlessly patient, he was clearly a man at odds with himself. At the start of the week, he appeared depressed about the challenge he faced.

After so long at the top, he may have sensed this could be a competition too far. He looked like he badly needed a break before preparing for the toughest challenge he will face - the Sydney Olympics and an unprecedented third gold medal. Popov will be 28 next year while his young rival will be just 22. The juxtaposition of youth and experience will never be keener.

James Hickman and Steve Parry both qualified for today's final in the 200m butterfly. Parry, bronze medallist last time, qualified comfortably in fourth, but Hickman, the short course world record holder in this event, was lucky to make it in seventh place.

Martin Harris and Neil Willey will contest the 50m backstroke final, while in the 800m freestyle Margaretha Pedder and Sarah Collings also made it through.