In the end, the charges came up empty and the cheers drowned out
the whispers, and there was only one thing left to say about the
best individual swimming performance of the Atlanta Games.
Michelle Smith of Ireland was dogged by accusations of steroid
use all week, but after everyone was out of the pool and all the
awards were handed out, her detractors had fared no better than
her rival swimmers. She won four medals, including three golds
earlier in the competition and a bronze in the 200-meter
butterfly last night, and she won the game. Whether she beat the
best swimmers or--as some of the losers have charged--just beat
the system, Smith today owns as many gold medals as the swimmers
from Australia, China and Germany combined.
In her final race Smith, 26, finished third, behind Susan
O'Neill and Petria Thomas of Australia, but she remains one of
the most compelling individuals of this Olympics. President
Clinton consoled her in the face of the steroid rumors during a
brief meeting on Thursday, while the folks back in her homeland
made plans to declare a national holiday when she returns. After
a week of projecting stone-cold confidence under relentless
pressure, Smith broke down upon receiving her bronze medal. "I
wasn't crying out of disappointment," she said. "I was crying
because this was the happiest week of my life."
Smith's accomplishments may have been more dramatic and more
surprising, but U.S. sprinter Amy Van Dyken actually brought
home more golds than the Irish star. Van Dyken upset China's Le
Jingyi in the 50 freestyle last night, setting a U.S. record of
24.87 seconds and taking her fourth gold of the Games. She had
previously won the 100 butterfly and had been part of two
winning relays. People thought the hero of the U.S. swim team
would be an asthmatic. They were right, but it wasn't Tom Dolan,
who disappeared after only one gold medal. Van Dyken, a cheerful
23-year-old Colorado native, quietly became the first U.S. woman
to win four golds in one Olympics.
On another night dominated by U.S. swimmers, Brad Bridgewater
won the 200 backstroke, followed by teammate Tripp Schwenk; and
the men's 4x100 medley relay team added a fitting exclamation
point to the weeklong competition by setting a world record.
Jeff Rouse, Jeremy Linn, Mark Henderson and Gary Hall Jr. easily
outraced the field in 3:34.84, more than two seconds ahead of
the previous world record, set by the U.S. eight years ago at
the Seoul Games.
The Americans finished with 26 swimming medals, including 13
golds. Russia, with four, came away with the second-most golds.
While the Australians rallied on the final night, finishing 1-2
in two races to win their only gold medals, the Chinese
continued to drown in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center pool.
China had been expected to challenge the U.S. for women's
swimming supremacy, but the Chinese left with only one gold and
six total medals.
The final blow to the Chinese was Van Dyken's triumph over Le,
the world-record holder in the 50. Van Dyken's time of 24.87 was
.03 of a second ahead of Le's, and the gangly champion made an
odd dedication at a postrace press conference. "This victory was
for all the nerds," she said. "I'm six feet tall, and I was six
feet tall in high school. I was easy to pick out in a crowd.
That's why people picked on me."
Van Dyken had two words for those cruel classmates: Thank you.
She recalled how she once overheard her high school swimming
teammates say how they couldn't win a relay if she was a part of
it. She recalled that comment with her fourth Olympic gold medal
around her neck. "I don't think I would have worked so hard if I
didn't have such a hard time in high school," said Van Dyken.
"So for all the kids out there who are struggling the way I was
struggling, I hope I can be an inspiration to you."
Somehow she didn't look like such a nerd anymore.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Even before she swam to her fourth gold, in the 50 free, Van Dyken had plenty to be thankful for. [Amy Van Dyken pointing to back of t-shirt which reads "Thanks America"]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON O'Neill ended a string of Australian disappointments by holding off Smith in the 200 butterfly. [Susan O'Neill swimming]