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Popov Strong With Words and Water

July 18, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ It’s spelled Popov, not Pop-off.

The Russian swimmer smiles pleasantly and pleads innocent to charges that he is skillful with words as well as in the water. Gary Hall Jr., the American with whom he has a simmering rivalry, disagrees.

``He’s definitely a trash talker,″ Hall says of Alexander Popov, the world’s fastest sprinter.

Popov has much to boast about. He won the 50- and 100-meter freestyles at the 1992 Olympics, is the favorite in both this year, and holds the world record in the 100.

He also beat runner-up Hall in both races at the 1994 world championships in Rome. Sitting next to Hall after his second victory, Popov said he wasn’t in top shape but could win even when he wasn’t at his best.

``He came across as arrogant,″ Hall says.

And in an article in the July issue of Swimming World magazine, Popov was quoted as saying of Hall: ``He talks too much.″

Soon, they will meet again.

Their first confrontation is Monday in the 100 freestyle. Three days later, they battle in the 50 freestyle, a mad dash just one length of the pool in which the slightest mistake can be devastating.

Popov points out that he breathes just once in that event. Hall needs two breaths.

``It’s only 22 seconds,″ Popov said Thursday. ``There is no time for a second breath.″

And when asked to compare Hall with Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, two outstanding U.S. sprinters he beat in the 1992 Summer Games, Popov says simply, ``the results do speak for themselves.″

``Whatever,″ Hall says with a shrug. He hasn’t swum either race as fast as Biondi or Jager.

Popov’s world record in the 100 is 48.21. Hall’s best time is 49.31 and Jon Olsen, the other American in the event, has a personal best of 49.33.

In the 50, Popov set an Olympic record of 21.91 and was surprised he did so well, barely missing Jager’s world record of 21.81. Hall’s best time is 22.27, and David Fox, the other American entered, has never gone faster than 22.50.

Popov, when asked if he might set a world record at the Olympics, grinned and said, ``Let’s wait and see.″

Hall expresses confidence when asked if he can beat Popov in both races.

``I plan on it,″ he said.

Popov, with more justification, is similarly confident.

``I want always to be the best,″ he said through an interpreter before breaking into English, in which he is fairly fluent. ``If you’re not the best, you better start doing other strokes like breaststroke, scuba diving.″

Hall thinks Popov might be trying to put more pressure on him because Hall’s father swam in three Olympics, winning two silver medals and one bronze.

``I get a kick out of it. I don’t know why he’s so concerned about a guy who doesn’t train,″ said Hall, who admits it’s sometimes a struggle to get out of bed and to the pool.

Actually, Popov claims to be concerned only about himself. Worrying about how an opponent is doing can bring trouble.

``I always try to swim by myself as if I’m the only one swimming,″ he said. ``I don’t look around. It’s just myself and the race. The moment you start even taking a glance to the side, you lose the pace.″

Jager, who is retired from swimming, said he’d like to see someone break his record because of the excitement of such an accomplishment. As long as it’s not Popov, who beat him the six or seven times they raced against each other.

``American sprinting is dominant,″ Jager said. ``We need to continue our dominance. ... Everybody’s asking Popov about winning the race, and they’re only asking Gary about ruining Popov’s day, so that’s maybe a good position to be in.″

Popov, however, has broken the U.S. strength in the short races. And he says he’s confident, but not overconfident, that he can win both races again. He’s even considering swimming a backstroke race.

``You need to watch everyone. You need to expect that somebody can jump out of the water and be ahead of you,″ he said. ``It’s better to overestimate your competitor than underestimate him.″

He just doesn’t seem to be overestimating Hall.

``I’m not going to respond to him,″ said Hall, who often does. ``I’m just going to go out there and speak through swimming. You like to see somebody, when they get a little bit arrogant, dethroned.″

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