When he set the long course world record for the 200 metre butterfly (1:55.22) in June 1995, Denis Pankratov brought the stroke to a new and startling level. One of his competitors, Franck Esposito of France, went so far as to brand him an "extraterrestrial." He went on to better every butterfly record in existence (long course 100, short course 50, 100 and 200), inspiring awe in all who witnessed his innovative submarine technique. By early 1997, Pankratov was considered untouchable. He proved himself human only a short while later, however, at the European Championships in Seville. While that same Esposito went on to become European champion, Pankratov struggled to make it into the finalÉand missed. His stroke literally fell apart, and with it, his resolve. Thinking back, Pankratov says that at the time he was in desperate need of rest. "I had hoped the emotional explosion would carry me through (the races in Seville), but it didn't work that way." His motivation at level zero, he withdrew, spending three months "as far away from the pool as possible."
And then the records began to fall. The news in October of 1997 that Michael Klim (AUS) had broken the world record in the 100 fly came as a surprise. Pankratov watched on television as Denis Silantiev stroked his way to the world champion title in Perth. Then Klim took the short course 100 in Sydney, and at the World Cup in Paris, James Hickman (GBR) lowered the short course 200 fly record yet another incredible notch. Back in the water himself since late November, Pankratov used that time to decide if he wanted to come back to the sport. Could he go the three more years until the Olympic Games in Sydney? The answer was yes. Now "rebuilding from zero," Pankratov is back at work. Together with his coach, Victor Avdienko, he is studying videotapes of his earlier style. The science of their work together is clear from the way he speaks about the sport. Everything can be explained in terms of technique. His observations are practical, almost emotionless. Just a clear explanation of what he knows he must do.
Of course, one major change has affected his race: since March of this year, the underwater kick in the butterfly has been restricted to 15 metres. "I thinks it's a shame for the spectators that the underwater kick has been restricted because it was something spectacular to watch," he says. "But I don't think it will make the records harder to reach. The swimmers who have mastered the technique will still use it in training. For me, the underwater was especially important to prepare my leg movements and get my body into the correct position. The most important thing in butterfly is the legs."
Speaking after the 200 fly final in Monaco, where he was eighth with a time of 2:03.72, Pankratov was satisfied with the result because after such a long break he had literally "lost his technique." "I'm even a bit surprised," he says, "I thought I would swim slower!" Does this setback worry him?
"Nyet." No hesitation.
"I haven't lost anything in terms of real speed," he goes on, "I'm just realizing that it is more difficult to come from behind. But this is good...in Russia, we have a saying, 'the worse it is, the better.' It is easier to work hard when there are lots of problems to tackle." He thinks again. "I'm not interested in pre-programmed victories," he says. "All I want now is to get back into top form so I can meet the best in Sydney. All competitions between now and then are a series of tests along the way. We're training primarily for 200, and the 100 will follow once 200 is reestablished."
On the way to the Russian Nationals, Pankratov made the next test count. In Canet he was second in the 200 fly with a sub-2 minute swim. The next hurdle will be to qualify for the Goodwill Games.