A rather uncharacteristic light rain marked the beginning of the finals and the sky was threateningly overcast for the duration of the finals, but the lack of direct sunlight was a plus for the swimmers.
Olympic silver medallist Paul Palmer, GBR, was the favourite in this event and he led the race at the 100. At that point Emiliano Brembilla, ITA, took over and flew into high gear, moving up on the field as his powerful stroke rate increased with each length. His winning time of 3:45.96 was the third fastest all time.
To sweeten the afternoon, Massimiliano Rosolino, ITA, finished second with 3:48.11. It was a first ever one-two sweep for the Italians, and a cheering section from Brembilla's native village in northern Italy was there to relish it.
Brembilla's splits: 55.92, 1:52.53, 2:49.19 and 3:45.96. An elated Brembilla said, "It was a wonderful race. I did not expect to do it so well. It was far better than I had hoped....so let's wait for the 1500!"
Paul Palmer finished third with 3:50.03, not quite the medal he expected, but his third of these championships (he won gold in the 200 free and 4x200 free relay). He could not be disappointed, saying that he lacked some of the background work necessary to achieve a time like the Italian's.
After an impressive morning swim (59.67) Martina Moravcova, SVK, came up short yet again (she was second two years ago and second in the 100 freestyle on Tuesday), losing out to Denmark's Mette Jacobsen, whose 59.64 was a huge drop from her previous personal best of 1:00.46 from two years ago. "I'm so happy, not with the gold but with the time!" she said, smiling. "That's a big difference, to go under the minute mark."
Moravcova put in her second sub-minute swim of the day with a 59.74. "I'm not disappointed at all," she said, "because it's a silver medal and I went twice under the minute mark. But I did have a bad touch."
Johanna Sjoberg, SWE, finished third with 1:00.07.
The race looked like it belonged to the Olympic bronze medallist Andrei Korneev, RUS, who led for most of it but faltered at the finish, when Alexander Goukov, BLR, put on a blazing finish to touch first in 2:13.90.
Korneev held on to second with 2:14.40 and Daniel Malek, CZE, was third in 2:14.74.
The world short course champion in this event, Goukov had hoped for a medal but was surprised at his winning time. It was four seconds faster than his best a year ago.
Korneev was tired, saying, "I've had too many competitions, and there was the added pressure of reaching the Russian Selection standard for the Worlds at this meet. This is my best time this season so it's ok."
After being disqualified in the prelims of the 100, his only chance remained in this event.
With fantastic technique, Agnes Kovacs, HUN, had little difficulty in winning her second gold. Her time of 1:08.08 was a personal best. Having just turned 16, Kovacs follows a long line of successful breaststrokers from Hungary coached by Laszlo Kiss. "We have a tradition of success and technical innovation in Hungary," Kiss said. "I coached Joseph Nagy, who then became my assistant for eight years, eventually moved to the U.S. and coached Mike Barrowman to his Olympic gold and world record in 1992."
"Every medal is important to me," said Kovacs, "and the Atlanta medal was a real surprise. Here I wasn't so sure about how I would do in the 100, but I'm pleased to have been on the podium and to have heard my anthem twice."
Svetlana Bondarenko of the Ukraine turned in a personal best of 1:08.87 for the silver medal—her fourth consecutive silver medal in this event since the European Championships in Athens in 1991. The 26-year-old who happens to have a 5-year-old daughter, was pleased with her result, but joked that as a young swimmer her coach dreamed of preparing her to be European champion.
"I'm kind of ashamed that his dream has never come true after four European Championships!" she laughed.
1995 European champion Brigitte Becue, BEL, was again relegated to third, finishing in 1:09.42. "I'm having a lot of trouble with the heat," she said.
With Alexander Popov leading-off, the Russians left no doubt about the outcome of this race. Popov imposed with a 49.02 first leg, improving on his own winning time from the previous night by 7/100 of a second. A new Championship record and another dose of confidence. "It wasn't a question of doing a Championship record, but it was a chance to swim it like another individual event," he said, "I need to catch up some races and that's why I went first."
Germany was second the entire way, but could never challenge the Russians' impressive lead. The winning time of 3:16.85 was a new European record.
Germany posted 3:18.33 for the silver, and the Dutch team was third in 3:20.82.