Germany's Franziska van Almsick held off the Chinese women Tuesday night, although she had to break a world record to do it, but the only other two foes that they still looked up to, the United States' Janet Evans and Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi, fell from their pedestals 24 hours later.
If either could find consolation midway through the World Championships, it was that the Chinese had not knocked them off. Evans and Egerszegi took care of that themselves, swimming worse Wednesday night than anyone believed possible, finishing fifth in their respective races.
Oh, there was one other consolation. Neither lost her world record to the triumphant Chinese. He Cihong's 100-meter backstroke time of 1 minute 00.57 seconds was a meet record, but well short of Egerszegi's mark of 1:00.31. And Yang Aihua's time of 4:09.64 in the 400 freestyle wasn't close to Evans' best time this summer, much less her record 4:03.85.
The Chinese women, however, did break the world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay--demolished it, in fact--with a time of 3:37.91. That was more than a second and a half faster than the previous record of 3:39.46 set by the United States during the 1992 Summer Olympics at Barcelona.
Three of the four women from that team were together again Wednesday night, but only one, Jenny Thompson, swam a leg that was faster than the slowest Chinese woman as the United States finished a distant second in 3:41.50.
That race was over as soon as China's leadoff swimmer, Le Jingyi, dived into the water. She swam her leg in 54.31, which is faster than the former 100-meter freestyle record of 54.48 that she broke Monday night with an astonishing time of 54:01. Not even van Almsick, who edged one of Le's teammates in winning the 200 freestyle Tuesday night, could keep her in sight, swimming the first 100 for Germany in 54.88.
Asked later why she had not gone as fast or faster than she had 48 hours before, Le smiled and said, "Because my coach didn't ask me to."
The only other gold medalists Wednesday night were Russians, who won both men's finals. Alexander Popov did not approach his world record of 48.21, but he did win the 100 freestyle in 49.12. Vladimir Selkov, second to Spain's Martin Zubero at Barcelona in the 200 backstroke, won this time in a meet-record 1:57.42; Zubero was second in 1:58.75.
But the talk of the swimming world on the third day of this meet was about the same as it has been for the last four years. The only difference is that no one can say now that the Chinese women are emerging as a superpower. They have emerged.
Through the first eight events, they have won six and set two world and four meet records, causing the sport's experts to revise their forecasts. Figuring before the meet that China's women would win seven or eight of the 16 gold medals, they now believe that the count could be 11 or 12.
So do not expect the suspicions that the Chinese are using banned drugs to enhance their performances to end. On Wednesday, it was the United States' B.J. Bedford commenting on the subject.
An art history major at the University of Texas, she was asked which Italian sculptor would have used the Chinese women as models.
"Michelangelo, perhaps," she said. "Is that what you're looking for? His women have always been rather muscular."
Bedford was ecstatic about her third place in the 100 backstroke, but no one would have blamed her if she had been discouraged. She swam a personal best of 1:01.32 and then heard the woman who had beaten her by three-quarters of a second, He, say that she and many of the other Chinese women are not even peaking for this meet.
"In China, we consider the Asian Games more important than these championships," He said.
Meantime, she raced past Egerszegi as if the Hungarian were not even there. Actually, the Egerszegi who finished fifth Wednesday in 1:01.53 was not the same one who had won each time she entered the event since 1989.
Nor was it the same Evans in the 400 freestyle who had lost only once in that event since 1986.
"I just wish I had swum as fast as I did at nationals, and I would have won," said Evans, whose fifth-place 4:11.75 Wednesday was almost three seconds slower than her winning time in the U.S. championships last month at Indianapolis.
Otherwise, the Americans were not disappointed with their performances as they won medals in each of five events. Besides the 400 freestyle relay team's silver and Bedford's bronze in the 100 backstroke, Cristina Teuscher finished second in the 400 freestyle with a personal best of 4:10.21, Gary Hall Jr. finished second in the 100 freestyle with a 49.41 and Royce Sharp finished third in the 200 backstroke with a 1:58.86.
The U.S. Swimming Federation is counting on Teuscher, 16, and Hall, 19, to help form the nucleus of the team for the 1996 Summer Olympics at Atlanta. Both seem motivated, Teuscher because of how the Chinese women are swimming and Hall because of how Popov is, well, popping off.
After the Russian's victory Wednesday, he said, "My favorite distance is the 100 freestyle. If I feel good, I can't lose it. If I feel not so good, I can't lose it also."
Hall, the son of a three-time Olympic swimmer, said, "If you talk like that, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Right now, he's swimming faster than I am. But I don't like to be blown off."