Russian starlets lay down marker for Rio Olympic Games

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Baku, June 28, AZERTAC

"I have no rivals. My only enemy was time."

So said Maria Astashkina, who won four gold medals, but the words could have been uttered by many of her all-conquering Russian swimming team-mates during the five days of competition at the Baku Aquatics Centre.

In the end, time did not stand a chance. Neither did most of Russia's rivals, with only Great Britain putting up any kind of a challenge.

Of the 42 events, 23 gold medals finished round Russian necks. Britain were a distant second with seven, while Germany had three.

For swimmers like Astashkina and Arina Openysheva, who won seven golds, the senior world championships in Kazan, Russia, in July beckons and afterwards, perhaps, the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The same goes for team-mates Daniil Pakhomov and Anton Chupkov, in butterfly and breaststroke, who finished with four gold medals each. Pakhomov also twice broke the junior world record at 100m butterfly.

Six junior world records tumbled in total – all but one to Russia. The odd man out was Britain's Luke Greenbank in the 200m backstroke.

The 17-year-old was eclipsed by team-mate Duncan Scott, who finished with three gold medals and three silver and looked particularly impressive on his way to winning the 200m freestyle.

Pre-Games, the talk was all about Openysheva's bid for eight gold medals, earning her the label of 'Mini Phelps', in honour of the US swimmer who won eight at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

She finished with seven, but was still the stand-out performer. "It is nice when you are winning," said Openysheva. "Even when your physical strength is going, your mental strength rises up."

The elusive eighth was denied her by Dutch youngster Marrit Steenbergen, whose victory in the 100m freestyle has catapaulted her into third in the Netherlands rankings and the growing possibility she could make Rio 2016 in the relay.

In the avalanche of golds which went Russia's way, Astashkina confirmed her status as queen of the breaststroke, winning at 50m, 100m and 200m, plus in the 4x100m medley relay.

The other multiple gold medallists were Mariia Kameneva and Polina Egorova, who each take six gold medals home to Russia.

Pakhomov shrugged his shoulders and expressed no surprise when he set a junior world record in the heats of the 100m butterfly, only to lower the standard again a few hours later in the semi-final. On the final night he added the 100m title to his 200m.

Israel's 50m freestyle champion Ziv Kalontarov earned the spectators a rare medal ceremony that did not echo to the strains of the Russian national anthem on the closing night, when eight of the 11 finals went to Russia.

Asked why the team was so good, Pakhomov had a simple answer.

"Because we are Russian."

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