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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blas? Popov Destroys Field In Qualifying

HELSINKI, Finland -- Alexander Popov stole the show at the European swimming championships without even winning a medal Tuesday, producing a sizzling 100-meter freestyle time that nobody but himself has ever matched.

The Olympic champion swam a languid heat in the morning, declared it did not really matter if he finished first or last and then burst out in the evening with an astonishing semifinal swim of 48.34 seconds f more than a second faster than any of his rivals.

Popov, happy to be unpredictable as the mind games unfold in the run-up to September's Sydney Olympics, said after his morning amble of 50.46 that it was only a training swim and he would just stick to training in Helsinki.

But there was no diffidence in the evening as Popov left rivals and onlookers gasping in awe with a time bettered only by his 48.21 world record of June 1994 and a 48.27 he sprang at last month's national championships in Moscow, at which he also broke the 50 freestyle world record that had stood for 10 years.

Popov, who claimed one Helsinki gold Monday in the 4x100 freestyle relay, stands on the brink of a historic Olympic feat, aiming to become the first man to win three individual swimming titles at successive Games. He pulled off 50 and 100 freestyle doubles in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.

Sweden's Lars Frolander was the second-fastest overall qualifier for Wednesday's final in 49.77, while Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who trounced Popov in both sprints at last year's European championships in Istanbul, managed only sixth overall in 49.89.

Van den Hoogenband, who won six golds in Istanbul, has barely interrupted his heavy Olympic training for these championships, and he had one of his titles snatched away Tuesday when Jere Hard brought hosts Finland their first Helsinki crown in the 50-meter butterfly final.

Hard produced a finish worthy of his name to win in 23.88 from Frolander and Britain's Mark Foster, last year's joint bronze medalists. Defending champion Van den Hoogenband, slow out of his blocks, finished a well-beaten fifth.

Olympic champion Denis Pankratov continued his comeback Wednesday by squeezing into the semifinals of the 200-meter butterfly.

Pankratov, 26, has endured a dispiriting time since the mid-1990s when he was breaking every butterfly world record in the book and ruled as Olympic, world and European champion.

He failed to make the national team for the 1998 world championships, thought about ending his career and then did not get beyond the semifinals in the 1999 European championships.

But the old master could not have cut it finer Wednesday, qualifying in 16th and last place.