2003 world championship review

As the banners said, Barcelona '03 was just amazing!

With the dust now settled on the tenth FINA world swimming championships it’s time to take a look back at the week of competition in Barcelona. And what a week of competition the world’s top swimmers produced. With only a year to go until the Athens Olympics, the worlds best were out to make their mark and to stake their claims for Olympic success next year. What that ensured was a top quality competition as no fewer than fourteen world records being set in the Palau St Jordi’s temporary pool. Below, we pick our highlights from the week’s swimming.

Swimmer of the week
Michael Phelps celebrates yet another world record.

There was very little competition as far as the swimmer of the week was concerned. Almost anything Ian Thorpe could do, the American teenage sensation Michael Phelps could do better, as the Baltimore based swimmer broke five individual world records on his way to a personal medal haul of three gold and two silver medals. But it wasn’t just the statistics, impressive though they were, but the manner of those world records which caught the eye. Phelps reduced the 200m butterfly record by 0.65s, the 200IM record by a total of 1.9s and the 400IM record by a staggering 1.62s.

His performance on the Friday evening was simply awesome. First up were the semi finals of the 100m butterfly. Most people might have expected Phelps to take it relatively easy with the final of the 200IM to come later in the session. How wrong they were; with Andrii Serdinov having set a surprise world record in semi-final one, there was no chance of that. Phelps lowered the Ukrainian’s mark by 3 tenths of a second before returning 35 minutes later to take gold in the medley and lower his own record from the semi final by 1.5 seconds.

But there is more to the young man than medley and butterfly. With Australia taking the gold, it’s easy to overlook his performance in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Phelps led off the American quartet in a blistering 1:46.60, a US national record and a time that would have taken bronze in the individual event, behind only Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband. It was a swim that gave the impression that the 18 year old could be a force to be reckoned with over just about any event if he chose to train for it. A quite astonishing performance from the next superstar of the pool and one that deservedly earned him the swimmer of the meet award.

Race of the week
One of the best podiums you'll ever see; the men's 100m freestyle medallists; (L-R) Pieter van den Hoogenband, Alex Popov, Ian Thorpe

Barcelona produced some amazing performances and some thrilling racing, but the men’s 100m freestyle final, so often the blue riband event at a major international meets, produced something special for a number of reasons. The presence of three of the world’s greatest swimmers on the podium in the shape of in Ian Thorpe, Alexander Popov and Pieter van Den Hoogenband, who between them boast 9 individual world titles, 7 individual Olympic titles and a huge number of world records, whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Popov is immensely popular in any case, but nowhere more so then the Catalan capital where he won his maiden Olympic title in 1992, so his win was just what the hugely vocal crowd were after.

The race itself was full of incident. Popov went off like a shot, despite a relatively slow start, and was under world record pace at the 50m mark, but everyone expected van den Hoogenband to storm back over the second half of the race. Popov held off the challenge from the flying Dutchman, who has incredibly yet to win a world title, to regain his world title. Meanwhile Thorpe, who had been some 4 metres down on the rest of the field at halfway came from absolutely nowhere over the closing 20 metres to steal in for the bronze in a new personal best time. A sensational race in an electric atmosphere.

Swim of the week
An emotional Liesel celebrates her world record.

For us, the swim of the championship came, perhaps surprisingly, in a semi final. The race in question was the women’s 100m breaststroke and the swimmer, “lethal” Leisel Jones, who established a new global standard for the event, touching home in 1:06.37. That Jones did not go on to take the title, having to settle for bronze in the final behind Xuejuan Luo and Amanda Beard does not detract from the quality of this performance. Her stroke, dramatically lower the water than her contemporaries, looked smooth and powerful throughout and she demolished a high class field removing the great Penny Heyns from the record books.

What made it all the more special was the outpouring of sheer disbelief and joy that followed he young Australian’s realisation of what she had achieved. Jones was reduced to tears in the pool as she was congratulated by team-mate Brooke Hanson, and clearly had no idea she had swum so fast. It was a marvellous sporting moment following an outstanding performance.

Surprise of the week

That man Phelps again, but this time the surprise wasn’t that he won, but more that he didn’t. the 100m butterfly had produced one of the moments of the competition in the semi finals, as each race produced a world record and few would have bet against Phelps taking yet another victory to add to his personal haul. the young American did indeed better his performances from the semi final in a time of 51.10, well under his old mark, but that was eclipsed by an inspired swim by his own teammate Ian Crocker. Crocker had said beforehand that he was going to win, but no-one really gave him a realistic chance. What he did was simply stunning.

Posting a time of 23.99 at the 50m, the smart money was on Crocker tying up and being overhauled by Phelps in the dying stages of the race, but instead the Texan swimmer maintained his form throughout the race to touch home in an astonishing 50.98 and set a new world record. A huge upset and another great moment from Barcelona 2003.