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One of the all time greats, Russian Alexander Popov’s reign over the sprint freestyle events during the 1990’s resulted in 9 Olympic medals, two long standing world records, and 5 individual world titles. He not only broke up the Biondi-Jager stalemate that had taken over the 50m freestyle, but he also influenced a generation of swimmers with his long, effortless-looking technique.
Here are 7 other fun facts about one of the all time greats:
1. A relative unknown at the time, he broke up the Biondi/Jager complex in ‘92.
For much of the 1980’s and early 1990’s the 50m freestyle had been entirely the Matt Biondi vs. Tom Jager show. From 1985-1990 they had combined to break the world record 9 different times. Leading up to the Barcelona Olympics little had changed in this narrative, with both Biondi and Jager considered the heavyweights about to settle the score after years of back-and-forthing. Popov, who had won the 100m freestyle at the 1991 European Championships, would win on the final night in Barcelona, having already dethroned Biondi in the 100m freestyle earlier in the meet.
2. He won the 50m free and 100m free in consecutive Olympics.
In winning the 50m and 100m freestyle at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and then again at the 1996 Atlanta Games – over Gary Hall Jr. in front of a hostile crowd – Popov became the first man to ever perform the feat. He would come close to a 3-peat in the 100, placing second behind Pieter van den Hoogenband at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
3. A month after the 1996 Olympics he got stabbed in a street brawl.
Weeks after his 4-medal performance in Atlanta, Popov was stabbed in the abdomen during an altercation between his friends and some street vendors in Moscow. Popov underwent emergency surgery to repair a sliced kidney and a pierced lung. The brush with his life would see him baptised at an orthodox church shortly afterwards, and married the following spring.
4. He loved to intimidate his fellow athletes.
Although he is mild-mannered and easy-going in interviews, Popov had an aggressive, killer’s instinct when it came to swimming and the competition. During the run-up to his repeat performance in 1996, Popov was quite blunt about the way he felt about his competition. “If I see any (challengers), I have to swim faster and make them feel sick,” he said. “If they have a little potential, you must get on top of them and kill that enthusiasm right away so they will lose their interest in swimming.” Ruthless!
5. He only set the WR once for each sprint freestyle event.
Considering the stranglehold he had on the market it is surprising to see that he didn’t break and re-break his records over the years. Alas, he only needed to break them each once. He broke Matt Biondi’s record in the summer of 1994 in the 100m freestyle, only to lose it to training partner, Australian Michael Klim 6 years later. The 50m freestyle mark, previously held by Tom Jager, lasted even longer. Popov’s time of 21.64 spent 8 years at the top of the charts, eventually broken by another Australian, Eamon Sullivan.
6. His career apexed in Barcelona, right where it began.
Lost in the Michael Phelps maelstrom at the 2003 FINA World Championships was Alex Popov’s unlikely return to form, where he reclaimed the 50m and 100m freestyle titles. In the same city as his first Olympics, a 31-year old Popov would defeat Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe to swim a 48.42, just two tenths off his best and his 4th fastest time ever. A year later, at his fourth Olympic Games in Athens, he would fail to qualify in either of his specialties, and would soon after retire from the sport.
7. He could kick 50m in 27 seconds.
Yup, you read that right. Using his arms the fastest he swam was his own world record of 21.64, but using just the stems he could kick a 50m freestyle kick in 27 seconds.
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