Soft Machine

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Alexander Popov created himself without the need for image makers. An ascetic in modern sport, he has no flashy nickname or entourage; a few product endorsements earn him a modest income. Popov, 28, lives and works in his own realm, a quiet world of knowing and learning and being. On the eve of his third Games, the youngest member of the International Olympic Committee has owned the racing pool for a decade and occupies the place of champion with grace and honor. "It's not about where you are," says the gentle Russian, his dark eyes afire. "It's who you are that's important." Here is Popov. Behind him there is history. And then, a little further back, there is the silent longing of thousands who have dreamed of beating this man to the wall.

Last month, Popov was having his final pre-Olympic hit-out against the millionaires of Australian swimming in the blue-ribbon 100-m freestyle event at a grand prix meet in Melbourne. On the block to his right was Ian Thorpe, 17, world-record holder in the 200-m and 400-m freestyle. To his left was training partner Michael Klim, 23, the fastest man ever in the 100-m butterfly. Even in this company, there seems nothing for the champ to prove. A super start: Popov aims to put his body through a small hole in the water. One, two, three, lovely long strokes. He is already half a body length in front. Popov knows he has won tonight. "This is like test work," he says, slipping into an Aussie drawl, with a huge smile and dancing fingers. "You see what's working, what needs to be adjusted minor or major. From there, once you've set up the program for yourself so that it will not fail, it is, as they say, sweet to go!"

Popov is a racing machine, a lean 90 kg in briefs, 2 m tall, with an arm span of 2.1 m and mighty legs that can propel him 50 m in a stupefying 27 sec. (21.64 sec. if he uses his arms as well). "He was born with the talent," says Gennadi Touretski, Popov's mentor since 1990. When Touretski, an Olympic coach for the former Soviet Union, moved to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in 1993, Popov followed. He is now an Australian citizen, but swims for Russia. Popov's pure heart has hurt his pocket; he must pay for his tuition and travel. At the A.I.S., Touretski and Popov have built an intimacy and refined their approaches: the influential coach redefining sprint training, the swimmer becoming creative in the water and more cerebral out of it.

Popov follows no-one and is without peer, yet he's a fine model for anyone seeking a long racing career. "You learn to look at your competitors and not to see them," he says. "You just feel them, whether you're in front or behind." Beneath the serenity, there is aggressiveness. But "it has to be inside. You just can't expose it to anybody." Experience gives him a variety of winning strategies. "Once I hit the water, I already know how well I'm going to swim," he says. "After one or two strokes I don't even have to think about what I have to do to win it comes automatically."

He made his mark in Barcelona, where he swam for the Unified Team and won gold in the 50 m and 100 m; four years later, in Atlanta, Popov silenced a frenzied crowd by retaining both Olympic crowns ahead of America's Gary Hall, Jr. A few weeks later, he was viciously attacked in a Moscow street; stabbed in the abdomen, he needed emergency surgery to repair the lining of his lungs. The racer's internal engine was not harmed, but his confidence was, in subtle ways. He became more self-conscious on the street; he lost key races and people started saying Popov was not invincible. But he did not crack. Popov beat his demons and moved on.

Touretski is a master of allowing his athletes to find their own answers and enjoy the journey. Popov came to realize that he'd been swimming with the wrong technique for five years. "I had the wrong image of my stroke in my head," he says. "I was thinking that the more force I applied at the beginning and end of each stroke, the more speed I would have. No! No! No! I was only creating more waves." Quality became the priority. Since January, Popov has cut "by a fair bit" his strokes-per-lap rate. "And all of a sudden we get the results." At the Russian trials in June, Popov broke American Tom Jager's 1990 world record for the 50 m.

Sydney will see a revitalized champion. He won't be wearing the full-body suit that has seduced most elite swimmers. "I have my own skin," he says, laughing. After two decades in the pool, often six hours a day, he still finds joy in discovery. "I feel more comfortable in the water," says Popov of his fresh, cut-down technique. "I have experienced some very interesting forces in the water that I've never even thought of before; the way the water goes along my body, the way I glide." He's still learning and looking for perfection; finding meaning amid the turbulence and staying ahead of a fast-finishing, hungry pack.