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They were characters in a little dramatic scene that took place
in maybe three feet of Olympic space. Sixteen-year-old Alison
Fitch of Hamilton, New Zealand, cried, and David Gerrard, the
country's white-haired chef de mission, tried to make her feel
better. No one else was involved. No one else mattered, not now,
not at this moment.

Fitch's head was buried in Gerrard's shoulder, and he was
talking, talking, talking. Ten-thirty in the morning. First day
of the Olympic competition. Too soon. The traffic had just about
been cleared away from the end of the opening ceremonies. The
Olympic cauldron had only just been lit. Fitch should not be
finished already with her best event. Too soon.

"It's all right," Gerrard seemed to say.

Fitch kept crying.

They stood in the shadow of the grandstand at the Georgia Tech
Aquatic Center. Ten minutes earlier, maybe 20, the conversation
would have been so much different. See the other people
nervously walking around, shaking out, getting ready, swimming
easy practice strokes, heads filled with possibilities? Ten
minutes earlier, maybe 20, she was one of them. Hear the noise
from the stadium as the qualifying heats continue? Ten minutes
earlier, maybe 20, she was in the middle of that.

Now she was a name attached to a number on a finish list. In the
100-meter women's freestyle, fifth heat, Fitch was the eighth
and last finisher.

"It's all so different from what you think it will be," she
said. "The United States swimmers are announced and there's a
big cheer. Everyone else...New Zealand, you're announced and
there's silence. Maybe a few claps. It's not all the hype you
think it will be. It is for the Americans, but for me it seemed
like a normal meet."

She had traveled from the other side of the world for an event
that took her 57.71 seconds to complete. If she had been 1.65
seconds faster she would have been swimming for a medal that
night. Instead, she was last in her heat, 29th in a field of 48.
She was going nowhere except back to the Olympic Village.

"I thought I was swimming well," she said. "I thought I was
going faster than I ever had gone. Then, the last 25 meters, I
fell apart."

Maybe she had no reason to think she could have been a finalist,
since her best time in the 100 freestyle was 57.17, still far
short of Saturday's qualifying mark, but logic is not packed in
many Olympic suitcases. Wasn't she the New Zealand record holder
in the event? Wasn't she only going to get better, young as she
was at 16? Wasn't the Atlanta pool supposed to be a launching
pad for fast times?

"Are your parents here?" Fitch was asked by a television
reporter. "Oh, yes," Fitch said, as if she had just remembered.
"They were in the stands somewhere. I couldn't see them. They're
probably worrying right now."

Time had passed--maybe an hour--and her tears were gone. She
talked with reporters easily. Gerrard had moved along to comfort
Anna Wilson, another New Zealand swimmer, who had bombed out in
the women's 400-meter individual medley. The heats had been
continuing, only eight medal contenders advancing from fields of
40 or so swimmers from around the world, and now the sadness
could be spread around. There were a lot of losers.

In the mixed zone, the area where athletes can describe their
efforts to journalists, the sounds of the voices, the looks on
the faces, were all that were needed to determine the particular
outcomes. Finland? A group of reporters interviewed a
dour-looking coach. The Netherlands? A happy male swimmer joked
with reporters. Italy. Japan. Five feet away from each other,
joy and despair could be seen and heard in different languages.
Happiness and disappointment. A crowd full of juxtaposition.

"Isn't it odd, the different emotions next to each other?" Fitch
was asked. "The idea that you can be sad and the person next to
you can be so happy."

"It's not odd at all," she said. "This is what it's all about,
isn't it?"

The XXVI Olympiad has nearly 11,000 athletes running, jumping,
shooting and powerlifting in search of the 839 medals that will
be awarded. There will be a lot more Alison Fitches in tears in
the next two weeks than there will be happy figures on podiums
with national anthems in the air.

She was just one of the first.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN For Fitch and others, like Gail Rizzo of Malta (above), defeat came early. [Gail Rizzo resting in swimming pool]