It was a stunning night of upsets as sprint Tsar Alexander Popov was forced to give up his second individual title. And an historic and emotional night for the French, whose team followed the lead of medallists Esposito and Sarnin and rose to the challenge as they never have before...
The dominant distance swimmer in recent years, winner of the Olympics and last year's Pan Pacific championships, had no difficulty with this event. Brooke Bennett (USA) led from the start with a very high stroke rate (53 stroke per length); she and the other top qualifiers Diana Munz (USA) and Kristen Vlieghuis (NED) swam in V formation from start to finish. Bennett split 4:11.95 at the 400, and finished in 8:28.71 for a second half of 4:16.76.
Munz took the silver with 8:29.97, while Vlieghuis was third with 8:32.34. In what was turning out to be a stellar meet for the Americans, it was their first sweep of the top medals, and a second medal for Bennett (earlier she finished second in the 400 free).
She was obviously pleased, saying, "This is great. I'm at my second world championships (finished third in 1994) and it's really different from the Olympic Games. In Atlanta the whole crowd is going for you and it makes a big difference. We have such a strong team here that we're really having a great time."
Munz, who finished sixth in the 400, said, "It's my first world championships, so it's great to win a medal. I was happy with my heat time (8:34.87) and I thought I had a chance. The American one-two was great."
Weather conditions may have affected this event. "It was a really heavy wind blowing," bronze medal-winner Kristen Vlieghuis commented. "Because of the false start I was really cold. But I did finish strong and it felt good at the end. I'm happy."
The favourite in this event was obviously defending champion Alexander Popov (RUS), but a brilliant start by 26-year-old William-better known as Bill-Pilczuk (USA) set him up for the race of his life.
Trying for yet another medal, Michael Klim (AUS) challenged at the 25 with Ricardo Busquets (PUR) also pressing the leaders.
In the dash to the wall the unsuspecting American gave his all, denying Popov another star in his impressive swimming crown. Pilczuk swam a personal best time of 22.29, relegating Popov's 22.43 to an unaccustomed second place. Undefeated in a major international competition since 1991, the Russian was visibly nonplussed at having lost to a relatively little-known Auburn University graduate.
Third place in the fray was a tie-and the bronze medal honours were shared by Klim and Busquets (22.47).
Pilczuk looked like he was seeing stars, and had a hard time grasping the reality of his win. "I can't really explain it, it hardly seems possible... I just went for it," he said. "I didn't really know where I was (in the race). This morning I swam my hardest only to go 22.7, and I was pretty angry."
What made the difference? "A three hour nap," said Pilczuk. The self-professed "drop dead" sprinter seemed almost sheepish. "This morning in the ready room I said to Neil (Walker), so what's the money in Vegas for second? I was going for the silver!"
It remains to be seen whether Pilczuk can sustain the wave he's riding until Sydney, where he has no doubt Popov will be as formidable a competitor as usual. "His best time is still better than all of us, so nothing is a given."
Popov, whose "invincible" technique was put to the ultimate test, said, "No, I'm not surprised; the American is a good swimmer and second is a good place. The 50 is a very tough race. Will I be watching out for him next time we race? I don't know ... we'll see."
Klim commented, "There's no chance to make a mistake in this race . I got an Australian record and my personal best so it's hard to complain. The crowd was fantastic again ... they really drive you."
Busquets said, "Puerto Rico won a medal at the Pan Pacifics, but I'm not aware that we have won a medal at the world championships. I think this is the first time."
This race took the cake for emotional appeal, as a tiny woman from Bucharest, via Mulhouse, made French swimming history.
Mai Nakamura (JPN) took the lead on the first length, splitting 30.91, closely followed by Meredith Smith (AUS) in 30.92. At the 100, Nakamura still held the lead splitting 1:03.73, with Smith in second with 1:03.92. Close behind were 100 m world champion Lea Maurer (USA) 1:04.19, Roxana Maracineanu (FRA) 1:04.36, and Dagmar Hase (GER) 1:04.54. Nakamura held the lead to the 150 mark with 1:37.70, while Maracineanu, accelerating through the third 50, moved into second off the turn, just ahead of Hase. A fantastic effort from a determined Maracineanu moved her into the lead on the final 50, and she touched first in 2:11.26, becoming the first world champion ever from France, with a new national record to her credit.
The diminutive (1.65 m; 51 kg) student of technical translation was completely stunned, utterly speechless, tears welling up in her eyes as she tried to make out the numbers on the time board, tried to comprehend that she had won the race. A word of congratulation from Hase, herself a former world champion in the event, confirmed the unreality of those numbers. Once out of the pool, she stared unbelievingly around the stadium, overcome with the moment, as if in a state of shock. And finally, incredulous: "Did I really win?" Five minutes later she managed, "I really didn't expect this. I had no idea. All I knew was that I was ahead of Hase who was next to me."
Bronze medal winner Nakamura said, "I'm relieved, and very tired. I'll have to go and rest."
When the strains of the La Marseillaise accompanied the raising of the French flag, Maracineanu was a touching spectacle on the podium—eyes closed, savouring the magic of a dream come true, inwardly thanking her parents, Romanian immigrants who fled the Ceaucescu regime in 1984, for having chosen to bring her and her brother to France. In the stands, her coach (Lionel Horter), teammates and French supporters had tears in their eyes. Breaststroker Karine Bremond said with a lump in her throat, "These are the most wonderful championships we've ever experienced." After a disastrous showing in Atlanta, where the French were hard-pressed to make a final, their turnaround has been remarkable.
World record-holder Jani Sievinen (FIN) was in no position to defend his title after finishing a miserable 11th in the heats (2:03.89). Led by Britain's James Hickman, five swimmers went through the butterfly under the world record pace of 26.17; Hickman kept his lead through the backstroke and was still under record pace at the 100 in 56.58. Matthew Dunn (AUS) moved into second on the backstroke, turning in 56.87. Ron Karnaugh (USA) had a great turn into the breaststroke and moved up to third. Curtis Myden (CAN) was in fourth, with favourite Marcel Wouda (NED) back in fifth.
As is so often the case, the breaststroke leg decided the winner.
At 150 m, Wouda had moved from fifth to first (1:32.09), Karnaugh from third to second, and Dunn had dropped from second to third. Myden remained in fourth, while Xavier Marchand (FRA) improved his position to fifth. Wouda held his lead to the wall, winning his first world title in 2:01.18. Marchand, inspired by France's gold medal in the women's backstroke, was the surprise finisher in this event, taking the silver in 2:01.66.
Karnaugh, a 31-year-old Barcelona Olympian and a medical school graduate, became the oldest man to win a world championship medal by stealing the bronze in 2:01.89 from Matt Dunn (2:02.03).
Tom Dolan (USA) evidently had trouble breathing and finished eighth in 2:05.82. World record holder Sievenen (FIN) finished third in the consolation final with 2:04.17.
Wouda was hurting after the race, but not from the usual sore muscles. "A world title feels amazing but it's really hurting everywhere ... especially my hand," he said, showing his hand. "I was doing my arm swings in the gym before coming here and I ripped the skin off my hand. Every time I was slicing my hand through the water I could feel the skin ripping back!"
Marchand said, "(Roxana's gold) really motivated me, along with the other medals won on the previous nights. I could see that I was moving up and that lanes two and three were falling back. It's not my best time but I really couldn't care less." With a fourth medal for France, there would be celebrating in the tricoloured camp that night.
Seeming to improve with age, Karnaugh said, "It makes everything so much better .... it's been a long comeback and I will be back for more. I think being older makes me smarter, and with my medical knowledge it helps my training, and to better understand the human condition. I'm really happy."
After a night of surprises in several races where the favourites gave way, it was Germany's turn to upset the Americans.
It started out according to expectations with the USA and Australia tied for the lead after the first leg, with Cristina Teuscher (USA) and Julia Greville (AUS) splitting 2:00.92.
Franziska van Almsick (GER) swam the lead-off leg in 2:01.28, her elegant stroke a long way off her four-year-old world record of 1:56.78. Her team was in third at the 200.
Dagmar Hase (GER), having just won the silver in the 200 backstroke, moved her team into the lead with a gutsy 2:00.16, while Lindsay Benko (USA) split 2:00.94, putting the Americans just half a body back.
Australia, who was in third at the 200, fell behind Canada, Sweden, and Great Britain as Anna Windsor split 2:03.23 at the 400.
Germany was now solidly in the lead, with 200 fly specialist Silvia Szalai giving them a strong leg of 2:00.42 to put them a body length into the lead (6:01.86) at the 600.
The Americans were fourth with 6:03.03 after Brooke Bennett's 2:01.17; she was obviously tired from her winning effort in the 800 free earlier.
The Australians battled back to third place with 6:02.95 after Susie O'Neill split the fastest leg of the evening with 1:58.80.
A surprising Sweden was in second at the 600 (6:02.87) with Malin Svahnstrom's 1:59.84 leg. Their final leg was their downfall, however, as Therese Alshammar only managed a 2:04.73, moving them back to fifth.
Jenny Thompson (USA) dove in over a body length behind Kerstin Kielgass (GER) but gained almost half that distance on the start. She battled to catch up and was narrowing the gap stroke for stroke, but the German was too determined. Kielgass split 1:59.60 to give the Germans the gold with 8:01.46, a sweet win after several days of disappointments, and their first at the World or Olympic level since 1991.
Thompson split a gutsy 1:59.85, and the Americans' final time was 8:02.88. Australia thrilled the crowd with the bronze in 8:04.19.
An emotional van Almsick said, "I can't find the words. Since my accident I've worked very hard but several things didn't go the way I planned. It is like a dream to come here and win this gold."
The Hungarian-born Szalai said, "It wasn't hard for me to swim fast because the other girls supported me and took the pressure off me. I just went for it and it worked."