With two gold medals already under her belt, Michelle de Bruin, IRL, took a commanding lead after three lengths of the race. But while the 1996 Olympic champion in this event seemed on pace for her third victory, she couldn't move far enough ahead of the field. Subsequently the 1992 Olympic champion and ex-Wundermadchen Dagmar Hase of Germany, pulled the upset of these championships in the final 50. Swimming in lane two, 27-year-old Hase made her move with a powerful kick and surged to the wall to win in 4:09.58.
From lane eight de Bruin perhaps couldn't see across the pool to react in time and finished second with 4:10.50.
Hase's teammate Kerstin Kielgass was third with 4:10.89. The splits:
Hase De Bruin Kielgass 1:01.31 1:01.07 1:01.27 2:05.29 2:04.05 2:05.50 3:08.43 3:07.76 3:09.22 4:09.58 4:10.50 4:10.89
It was worth noting that all three medallists, two of whom come from the well documented drug-based East German system, all have birthdays within three weeks of one another.
Hase said, "I was really surprised, not so much with the time but with the fact that I was first. I couldn't see anyone." But when asked about her aspirations for Perth she said, "In Perth a 4:09 will not matter because Poll has already done 4:06."
De Bruin said she was happy with the silver medal and that she was definitely feeling the effects of her previous races.
There was little doubt that Russia's quadruple Olympic champion Alexander Popov is back. After an easy prelim swim of 49.87, the final was a superb demonstration of perfection. He won the start by about a metre, stroking with a clean, efficient, and clearly superior arm pull with high elbow recovery. He paced the race perfectly for an even effort, turning in 23.91. On the second length, his technique overpowered the rest of the field and put him comfortably into the lead with 30 metres to go. He surged to the finish and touched in 49.09, a championship record and his fourth consecutive win in this event.
Lars Frolander, SWE, the top qualifier from the morning, improved on his time with 49.51 and finished second for his second medal (he won the 100 butterfly the night before).
Oleg Roukhlevitch, BLR, the leader at the 50 with 23.76, finished third in 49.84, his first sub-50 second 100 free.
"In the morning I wasn't sure how to swim because that was my second race this year (after Santa Clara in June)," said Popov, "I didn't know where I was, my technique wasn't there...so many things were going wrong. But afterward I went with my coach to swim down, and we worked on my technique, and I felt like I was reborn tonight."
When asked if he had had hopes to beat Popov, Frolander smiled, "No...I knew Popov was cruising around this morning so I thought he would go a lot faster." The Swede credited his sensational year to greater strength, and overall better health.
Popov's usual humour lightened the press conference when someone asked him what it meant to him to have the upcoming World Championships in Australia, his adopted home. "It means I won't have far to travel," Popov quipped.
But the meaning of the medal went a little deeper. "I got my confidence back today," he said. "That was the most important thing."
Sandra Völker, GER, had the lead for just over half the distance, turning first at the 50 in 29.79.
On the second 50 she was gradually overtaken by her teammate Antje Buschschulte and Roxana Maracineanu, FRA. The German touched first with 1:01.74, improving on her best time by nearly half a second.
Maracineanu took the silver medal, lowering her PB to 1:01.84 for the second time in the day and moving her own national record into the world class category.
Völker was a disappointed third with 1:02.23. "It's funny because when I started swimming this at 1:05 or 1:06," said a delighted Maracineanu, "I never would have believed that I was capable of going 1:01."
The Mulhouse native spent six months in Germany for her studies last September to January and said that the change, not to mention the diminished training, had done her good. "It allowed me to rest after a very difficult 1996," she said, "and I just realized that there was no reason why I couldn't compete with the others."
On the heat, she said, "I think it was a good thing for us (the French team) to have had the Mediterranean Games in Bari first. It was just as hot there and I think it was a good preparation."
Vladimir Selkov, RUS, took the lead early in lane six and held it throughout the race. He struggled at the finish but touched first with 1:59.21. After a disappointing Olympics in Atlanta, he was not completely satisfied, saying, "I just want to get back to where I was. I'm not there yet."
Emanuele Merisi, ITA, in the pack until the 150, surged on the last length but fell short of catching the leader; he finished second with 1:59.63.
"It was a very strange race," he said, "with the fastest swimmers (except Selkov) in outside lanes. When I turned at the 150 I thought I could win, and I actually thought I had won it until I saw the board."
Ralf Braun, GER, who was second for most the race, touched in 1:59.91 for the bronze.
The splits of the medal winners:
Selkov Merisi Braun 27.61 28.35 27.69 57.44 58.53 57.83 1:27.88 1:29.19 1:28.86 1:59.21 1:59.63 1:59.91
The Germans did not lead at the 100, as Sweden's Louise Johncke touched in 56.10 to Katrin Meissner's 56.17.
But from that point onward the Germans took the lead and gradually extended it with each leg. Their winning time of 3:41.49 was a championship record. Of note was anchor Sandra Völker's split of 54.09, the fourth fastest all time relay split ever.
Sweden battled Russia throughout the race, but held onto second with 3:43.69 as Russia clinched third spot with 3:44.72.