It was an historic final even before the gun was fired, with a changing of the guard for the Aussies. Defending champion and world record holder Kieren Perkins had stepped down, and two young guns were about to wow the world. Ian Thorpe, 15, and Grant Hackett, two years his senior, were a definite threat to favourite Emiliano Brembilla (ITA).
Hackett took the lead from the start, splitting first at the 50 (26.02) and the 100 (54.07). He was followed by Paul Palmer (GBR) and Thorpe.
Splitting 1:51.33 at the 200, Hackett was less than a second under the world record split. Thorpe was behind him in 1:53.42 and Palmer was in third (1:53.94). Hackett still held a lead of more than two seconds at the 300 (2:48.53), with Thorpe at 2:50.82 and Palmer at 2:51.69.
The last 100 was dramatic: two body lengths ahead, Hackett put his head down for the final stretch with Thorpe in hot pursuit. Palmer was still in the running for a silver.
At the final turn, Hackett appeared to have a good margin of one and a half seconds on Thorpe. And yet the younger athlete, with a shoe size greater than his age, went after the impossible, relentlessly reeling in Hackett to hit the wall first in one of the more exciting finishes of the meet.
Thorpe became the youngest ever world champion, with a remarkable time of 3:46.29. The elated Sydney native could hardly believe his own achievement.
"I really can't get over it," he gasped, ".... it's just fantastic .... it's an awesome feeling .... I'm hurting like nothing else, but I can't feel the pain."
Hackett said, "I could see him, but I couldn't do anything about it. It was wonderful and an unbelieveable effort by Thorpie (his room-mate). He's a fantastic guy .... a great athlete. I did my best time so I can't really complain."
Palmer was third in 3:48.02, a personal best time and British record.
Technique prevailed over experience. Agnes Kovacs (HUN) took the lead after the mid-point of the race and surged to the lead with 75 metres remaining. Although challenged briefly by Kristy Kowal (USA) on the final length, she held it to the finish for a time of 2:25.45, a new championship record.
Kovacs had a new twist in this, the most technical of the strokes: at the end of her recovery she spread her hands to shoulder width before starting her pull-the latest innovation from the country of great Hungarian breaststroke swimmers.
Early leader Penny Heyns (RSA) took it out in 33.17 and was 1:10.89 at the 100, but faded out of contention soon afterward. Australian favourite Samantha Riley, set back by a bout of tonsilitis just before the championships, was unable to keep up with the younger generation and was touched out for the bronze at the finish.
Americans Kristy Kowal and Jenna Street swam personal bests for the silver and bronze with 2:26.19 and 2:26.50 respectively.
"This is so exciting!" said an ecstatic Kowal. "I consider myself more of a 100 breaststroker. I came here seeded 11th in this event, so this is such a shock. After the gold in the 100 it kind of occurred to me that I could medal, because I know I hit my taper right on. This is so wonderful."
Bronze medal winner Jenna Street said, "After this morning (she qualified first in a new championship record), winning was obviously my goal. I knew it was going to be a tough race. I saw Kovacs get ahead but I couldn't pick it up."
A varied field promised a great race and they got away to an excellent start with all athletes making the most of their fifteen metres under water. American backstroke sensation Lenny Krayzelburg was the first to surface and looked strong, but was soon challenged by the rest of the field and went through the first turn in sixth place.
Matt Welsh (AUS) turned in 27.00, followed very closely by Neisser Bent (CUB) in 27.01 and Stev Theloke (GER) in 27.02. It was an extremely tight race. Heading to the wall, strength and uniformity of stroke were to pay off for Krayzelburg, who won in 55.00. The former Ukranian held off a great effort from a fast-finishing Mark Versfeld (CAN) 55.17.
Theloke squeaked into the medals in 55.20, with Bent 55.21.
Krayzelburg, swimming his first major international meet, was forthright following his effort, commenting, "There were lots of nerves, but this race was not about time-it's about winning and the entire race was a good one. You've got great guys in there who have come second and third at the Olympics, and it could have gone to anybody. So I'm really pleased it was me. I feel very special because I've never competed at such a big international meet for the United States before. While I was growing up in Russia, everyone wanted to be in the United States, so it's special to be an American and be standing on top of the world."
Asked about his consistently improving performances over the past year, a composed Versfeld said, "I don't know. I'm just growing into myself I guess, enjoying swimming and enjoying being part of the world championships. I knew I could do that time .... I just didn't know which place I'd get. I'm really happy with the time. I've taken a different attitude lately, and it was nice to be calm before a race." He added that the medals won by Canadian teammates Lauren van Oosten and Curtis Myden had given him a lift. "I didn't want to get my hopes up too much, but it was definitely in the back of my mind."
In what would be a last chance at the underwater fly kick, Misty Hyman (USA) did win the race to the first 50, kicking underwater for 35 metres, with a split time of 26.88. After the turn, she again went underwater for 15 metres but lost ground to surface swimmers Ayari Aoyama (JPN) and Jenny Thompson (USA), who surged into the lead while Hyman, underwater for 15 metres, fell back.
The race for the finish was between Aoyama and Thompson, with the American surging ahead with a few strokes left for a winning time of 58.46. Aoyama was second in 58.79 and Petria Thomas (AUS) got third with 58.97.
All three medal winners swam to personal bests, with Thompson's time a new championship record.
Hyman was fourth in 59.12. On March 6, the new FINA rule on underwater swimming in the fly will go into effect, limiting the underwater distance to 15 metres.
The unstoppable Thompson said of her third gold medal, "I knew I had to stay calm-and just swim my own race and stay relaxed. This one means the most to me so far because it's my best time by five tenths and I love this event." Asked about the atmosphere in the ready room, she said, "There seemed to be a bit of tension. Some sprinters are more vocal than others but we were all pretty quiet tonight-I just tried to do my own thing and relax."
An emotional Aoyama was in tears after the race. "At the end I gave it everything."
"I was stoked, and it was great to do two personal bests in one day," Petria Thomas said (double Aussie and double Commonwealth record). "I was trying to do a little bit better than this morning. I did and got a medal. It was the only medal I was missing so at least now I feel like I've got a full set."
The race was between Russia, Australia, and the United States.
Alexander Popov got the Russians off to a great start with a 48.74, with Michael Klim (AUS) in the next lane just behind with a 49.47.
The American lead-off swimmer Scott Tucker split 49.80, but on the next leg Neil Walker's 48.75 put them solidly into the lead for the rest the race. Veteran and US team captain Jon Olsen swam the third leg in 49.48 and Gary Hall Jr. anchored in 48.66 to give them a final time of 3:16.69, a new championship record.
Australia moved into second place on the third leg, at which point Chris Fydler, swimming the anchor leg, almost caught Hall with a 48.59 split. Their final time was 3:16.97, a three second improvement over their previous best.
Russia hung on for the bronze with 3:18.45, but was unable to challenge the leader as their third leg, Vladislav Kulikov, only split 51.28. The story might have been different had Vladimir Pyshnenko not tested positive last November. He'd been a member of their winning team at the Sevilla European Championships.
An elated Olsen said, "You know, this is our relay-that's how we feel about it. We knew it was going to be one of the closest in a while, so it was a pure adrenaline swim. The Aussie crowd actually helped us. They were really loud and we just tried to use that to our advantage." He went on to joke, "We're just really glad the Chinese women didn't enter the men's relay."
Olsen, who is part of a growing contingent of athletes with children, has a three-year-old daughter, Gabriella. He said that being a parent has made him appreciate what he does, as he is able to have so much time with his daughter at home. "If I had a 9 to 5 job I'd miss out on most of her day. This way I get to be with her all the time." His wife Joanne works, so Olsen says, "I'm Mr. Mom. And I love it! I wouldn't have it any other way."
After four medals in four days, Klim said, "All I really wanted was to get Popov and the mistake I made last night was not nailing him at the turn. I'm pretty happy with tonight's performance."
Popov, whose lead-off of 48.74 was faster than his 100 freestyle win last night (hence a new championship record), was gracious, saying, "I am happy with my medal. Any medal is always good, no matter what kind...gold, silver, or bronze. I improved our result a bit which is good."