Popov, man with a mission

KALYAN ASHOK

WHEN Alexander Popov won his first Olympic gold in the 50 m freestyle at the Barcelona Olympics (1992), the legendary Russian long-distance swimmer, Vladimir Salnikov, made a prophetic remark. "This is the beginning and this young man is going to be around for a long time." Popov has lived up to that prophecy of the man, who incidentally is one of Popov's idols, along with the Ukrainian World pole vault champion, Sergei Bubka.

When Popov takes the plunge at the Athens Olympics, he will be on the threshold of history.

The Czar of sprints, who holds the world record in 50m freestyle ( 21.64 seconds), won gold medals in the 50 and 100 metre freestyle events at the 1992 (Barcelona) Olympics and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When he took the gold in Atlanta, he became the first man since Johnny Weissmuller in 1928 to defend the 100 crown, and he is the only man to twice triumph in the 50. At the Sydney Olympics (2000), Popov was on the verge of a hat-trick of Olympics golds in the 50 and 100 m freestyle, but had to be content with a second spot and a silver, finishing behind, Pieter van den Hoogenband of Netherlands who won the 100 m freestyle with 48.30 seconds while Popov finished with silver in 48.69 and he ended up in sixth place in the 50 freestyle, clocking 22.24. But Popov was back on course as he hacked the field at the 2003 World Championship (Barcelona) to win his fourth and fifth crowns. It was especially gratifying to Popov to do so at the same venue, where he won his first Olympic title.

With two medals in Athens, Popov could tie Americans Matt Biondi and Mark Spitz for a total Olympic medal tally of 11. In addition, he could become the first man to win the same individual swimming event at three Games. Two women have accomplished the triple: Dawn Fraser of Australia (100 free, 1956-1964) and Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary (200 back, 1988-1996).

Popov, after a near total domination for almost a decade, which saw him win the World championship, the European championship and the Olympic titles in sprints, would certainly like to go out in a blaze of glory at Athens.

"It would be nice if I go and break my 50 record and take the gold, " says the 33-year-old Russian, but there are sceptics who wonder whether age would be on his side.

But then Popov is not just another champion. The `Russian Rocket' is regarded as the best in the business in terms of technique. His strokes are perfect and his edge is the DSP (distance per stroke). He can cover the 50 metres in 16 to 17 strokes. Another plus point for Popov is his extraordinary lung power and his highly effective breath control. Popov is a glutton for heavy work load, often putting 80 to 90 hours a week, which is very high ratio for a sprinter. Like most Russian athletes, he had done his share of mind training.

The much-feared Russian sprint king, in fact, was wary of water as a child in his home town of Sverdlovsk and did not take up swimming till he was eight. The young Popov, when he took up competitive swimming, was a backstroker at first, before converting to freestyle when he joined the much respected Russian coach, Gennadi Touretski in 1990. When Tourteski moved to Australia in 1993, Popov followed suit and it was almost after a decade that Popov moved back to Europe and is now based in Switzerland, after becoming an IOC member in 1999. He now trains with Swiss coaches and still gets advice from Toutreski, who comes on extended visit.

Popov's career almost met a tragic end in 1996 when a watermelon seller stabbed him after a brawl at his stall in Moscow in August 1996. He was struck in stomach and that damaged his kidney. He survived after he was rushed to Moscow City Hospital and underwent a major emergency surgery. Popov was back on his feet after six months.

"Only my body was damaged, not my soul,'' said Popov after that horrifying incident. Such calmness in the face of adversity, has earned him the nickname `Ice Man'. It is with this indomitable spirit, Popov now gets ready to make, what could be his curtain call at the Olympics, a memorable one.