Russia's 'Little Phelps' is favourite to make waves

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Baku, June 23, AZERTAC

Making the breakthrough in swimming is a difficult enough challenge without being compared to a multi-medal Olympian like Michael Phelps while still a junior.

That, however, is the label which has been attached to 16-year-old Russian Arina Openysheva, whose performances in the water are making waves on dry land.

The youngster won seven gold medals at the European Junior Championships (Dordrecht, 2014) and eight at the European Youth Olympic Festival (Utrecht, 2013).

It was in Utrecht that she was dubbed 'Little Phelps' in homage to the American who won eight gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Her reaction was a dismissive shrug of the shoulders.

As Europe's best junior swimmers prepare to compete in the Baku 2015 European Games, Openysheva also has one eye on the senior world championships in Kazan in July, which could provide her with an Olympic route to Rio 2016.

At Baku 2015 she is entered for the freestyle at 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m and is in the relay squads too. She is fastest in Europe in 2015 in her age group at 200m (1 minute 58.78 seconds) and 400m free (4:09.91) but has to take second place in the 100m free to Dutchwoman Marrit Steenbergen (54.84).

Steenbergen, however, knows that there are far too many Dutch seniors who specialise in freestyle to dream of anything but Tokyo 2020.

"I really hope to get there," admitted the 15-year-old, who is considering a career in the medical profession if she fails to make the grade in the pool. She is entered for the 50m/100m/200m free at Baku 2015.

"I hope I get a medal here (Baku 2015). I want to swim as fast as I can and if there's a medal then I'm very happy.

"Can I stop the Russians? I hope so," she laughed.

Steenbergen, who will be watched by parents Jaap and Katje and brother Yoran, avoids Openysheva in the 50m free but does not escape a Russian challenger.

Mariia Kameneva has posted the fastest time this year of 25.01 seconds while Steenbergen's best in 2015 is 25.60. Kameneva also swims 50m/100m backstroke and again is faster than anyone else in her age group in 2015.

The breaststroke equivalent of Openysheva is yet another Russian, Maria Astashkina, who also heads to Kazan in July and swims in all the sprint events at Baku 2015.

Astashkina collected gold in the 50m, 100m and 200m at Dordrecht and teamed up with Openysheva for the 4x100m medley title.

Great Britain have selected 11 women in their team who are expected to reach the finals as a minimum requirement, with medals a bonus.

Georgia Coates, a 16-year-old from Leeds in Great Britain, is one to watch in the 200m/400m individual medley.

Fellow Briton Holly Hibbott swims 200m/400m/800m free and 100m/200m butterfly. Her 800m free time of 8:41.39 is the fastest in her age group in 2015.

When it comes to the 1500m, Spain's Marina Castro Atalaya will be favourite after posting a season's best 16:41.90.

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