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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Popov: Swimming's Greatest Sprinter?

APThis week Popov could become the first male swimmer in Olympic history to win three gold medals in the same event.
There are few things more dramatic in sports than when an athlete makes a comeback from a serious injury or illness to reach the pinnacle of his discipline.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won six straight Tour de France victories after recovering from testicular cancer, is a prime example.

So is Russian swimmer Alexander Popov.

Lying in a hospital bed in Moscow with a punctured lung after being stabbed by a watermelon vendor, Popov told a friend, "I will swim again."

That was 1996, less than a month after Popov took gold in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events at the Atlanta Olympics. One year later he won the 100 freestyle gold medal at the European Swimming Championships.

At the 1992 Barcelona Games, Popov won his first two Olympic golds, in the 50 and 100 freestyle. His domination of sprint events was confirmed in 1996 when he became the first man since Johnny Weissmuller in 1928 to successfully defend the 100-meter title and the first man ever to win the 50-meter freestyle gold twice.

His decade-long reign came to an abrupt end in Sydney four years later when he finished second to the then-unknown Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100 freestyle. He finished sixth in the 50 freestyle and the Popov era seemed to have come to an end.

But three years later Popov reclaimed the title of world's greatest sprinter by taking gold in both the 50 and 100 freestyle at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona.

Should he win gold in the 50 freestyle in Athens, Popov will become the first male swimmer to win three Olympic titles in the same event.

For some his legend is secure whether or not he adds to his four Olympic golds. Speaking at a news conference on the eve of the Athens Games, Australian Ian Thorpe -- regarded by many as the world's leading swimmer -- described Popov as an inspiration. "I think he is the best sprinter that this sport has ever seen," he said. "I hope that is the legacy that is left behind."

Popov, 32, has said he will retire after the Athens Olympics. He has made it clear he wants to take over as president of the Russian Swimming Federation after he leaves the pool, though he narrowly lost an election for the position earlier this year.

He won his next election by a landslide: He was the only candidate nominated by Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachyov to carry the country's flag for the Russian team during the opening ceremony.

In an interview on the Sport television channel, Popov said he was happy to have received that honor.

"I think I earned the right," he said.

Heats for the 50 freestyle start Thursday, with the final due Friday.