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Patricia Smith decided to pray a bit inside her room at the Days
Inn in Stone Mountain, Ga. She saw that the time was five past
11 on the first morning of the Olympic swimming competition, and
she was frantic. Prayer was the only answer. Television had

"Do you know the song about 57 channels and nothing's on?" she
said. "That was the truth."

She and her husband, Brian, had clicked across the buffet line
of choices--cartoon conflict, the talking heads of American
politicians, headline news, even coverage of the XXVI Summer
Olympics--and had found everything and nothing at the same time.
Nothing that they had wanted to see.

They had tickets for the women's 400-meter individual medley
swimming finals that night at the Georgia Tech Aquatic
Center--tickets purchased long ago through the Irish athletic
federation--but had not been able to buy tickets for the
qualifying heats that were taking place, check the clock, right
this minute.

They were on a modest budget, their trip sponsored by
contributions made through a neighborhood pub. What if Michelle
did not qualify for the final? She had never made a final in two
previous Olympics. Brian, the optimist, said, "Not to worry,"
but Patricia could see herself selling the tickets to strangers
before the evening session. There might be no need to go.

What was wrong with American television? Where were the heats?
If she and Brian had stayed home in Rathcoole, on the outskirts
of Dublin, they would have been fine. Two channels. No cable. No
problem. Michelle would be on the screen in Ireland. For sure.

The telephone rang at half 11. A broadcaster from RTE, the Irish
national television system, wanted to know what Patricia thought
about Michelle's performance. "I don't know," she said. "What
was it?"

"Brilliant," the broadcaster said. "She's in the final."

The week of the magic had begun. By the time Michelle
Smith--Patricia and Brian's 26-year-old daughter, oldest of four
children--had finished her mad work in the pool, she would have
three gold medals, one bronze and the hearts and minds and sleep
patterns of her entire country in her pocket. She would be one
of the most successful and controversial figures ever to flail
through the chlorinated waters of an Olympics.

Television? There would be no trouble finding Michelle Smith on
any television anywhere.

She came from nowhere, from the depths of the form charts that
assumed she was too old and too slow, from a country that does
not have one Olympic-sized, 50-meter-long pool. Still, she won
gold in the 200- and the 400-meter IMs and the 400 freestyle,
and got the bronze medal in the 200 butterfly.

Leprechauns danced and freckles had hidden powers and she did
things that no one ever had done in a swimming pool, winning her
medals in individual races rather than in relays as some other,
better-known multimedal champions have.

"She has surpassed everything that has ever been done in Irish
sport," Ireland's minister of sport, Bernard Allen, freshly
arrived from Dublin, said last Friday night. "I was in
Parliament the other day when everything stopped to approve a
message of congratulations to her. Both benches supported the
motion." This was the Irish version.

She also was a cheat, a finagler. She somehow found a way, with
the aid of her new husband, who has also been her trainer for
the past three years, to skirt the drug rules of her sport. She
was an undocumented addition to those documented miscreants from
China and East Germany. How could she have improved so quickly?
Without medicinal help? How? She somehow hadn't been caught yet.

"We've given people the benefit of the doubt for too long," U.S.
women's coach Richard Quick said after Smith had knocked an
amazing 13 1/2 seconds off her previous best time this year by
winning the 400 IM in 4:39.18. "It's time we investigate sudden
jumps in performance." This was the American version.

Every other day for the first week of the Games, this redheaded
woman with broad shoulders and a hydrodynamic, knee-length
bathing suit that looked like something out of the 1920s swam
faster than she ever had. Every other day she would report to a
tense press conference at which Irish reporters would preface
all questions with melodious congratulations and American
reporters would throw undisguised darts.

She faced down her accusers. She smiled in the right places. One
night, an off night, she met President Clinton in the stands,
and they talked as equals about the "crap" the media can
deliver. She told the story at the next press conference. In
English. Again in Gaelic.

She was eloquent and tough. No, she had never taken
performance-enhancing drugs. Never. Plain enough? The past of
her husband, 33-year-old former discus thrower Erik de Bruin of
the Netherlands, suspended after a positive drug test in 1993,
was not part of the interview process. Next question. She
improved through hard work, hard work, then some more hard work.

The Americans cocked an eyebrow at her story. The Irish turned
it into a poem to be recited, a song to be sung over a slowly
drawn pint of Guinness on a midsummer's night. "The whole
country's going mad," Sean Ban Breathnach, a Gaelic radio
reporter, declared. "No one can get any sleep, her races are on
so late. No work is being done. I just called my wife. The post
usually comes at half 10. It still hadn't come at a quarter to
six. The whole country's stopped."

"She's always been an achiever," Sarah, Michelle's 24-year-old
sister, says. "She never smoked, never drank. She was the one
who got up at five in the morning to train when the rest of us
would want to sleep. She got A's in school. She went to college
in America, University of Houston, and one of the required
courses was American history. She didn't know anything about
American history at the start, but at the end she got the only A
in the class. That's just how she is."

The drive came from inside. Isn't that how champions work? The
drive was her most natural gift. She started in the old 25-meter
pool at King's Hospital in Dublin, the water so cold sometimes
that it felt as if it contained ice cubes. Brian, the owner of a
small auto-parts shop, simply wanted all three of his girls,
plus his son, to learn how to swim so they wouldn't drown.
Michelle was in love with the sport from the first minute.

"You know, I don't want you to be thinking I'm pushing you into
this," Brian told her as she became more and more competitive.
"This has to be your choice." He gave her the family alarm
clock. If she wanted to get up for the early practices, she
would have to decide to do it. She then could wake him up to
take her to the pool. He wasn't going to wake her. Her decision.

Michelle never backed away. By the time she was 18, having
graduated from a Gaelic-speaking school but talking English at
home, she was in the Olympics in Seoul. Brian was the only
family member present, sent by donations from the town. The
South Koreans read his nametag wrong and called him Brain.
Hello, Brain. This was her international debut, finishing 17th
in her best race, the 200-meter backstroke.

By the time the Barcelona Games rolled around in 1992, she had
trained for 18 months in Calgary and two years in Houston. She
got homesick a lot but followed the sport where it took her,
looking for more success. She carried the Irish flag at the
opening ceremonies. Her performances were doomed by degenerative
disks, her best finish a 26th in the 400 IM.

Her most important moment in Barcelona turned out to be a lunch
date she had with a friend who was a friend of a Dutch walker
who was trained by De Bruin. De Bruin was at the lunch, and a
relationship was soon formed. A love relationship. "Michelle
came back from Barcelona and was just moping about the house,"
Sarah says. "I told her the race was done and she should get on
with her life. She said, no, that wasn't a problem. She had met
a guy she liked, and he hadn't called. I told her to forget
that, too; that maybe they'd had a good time, but it was over
now. At that moment, just like the movies, the phone rang. It
was Erik."

He not only saw her again, but he also eventually wanted to
train her in Rotterdam. He had never trained a swimmer but
thought the theories of track and field training could be
brought to the pool. He said the routines she had been doing
seemed antiquated. He asked for six months. If she didn't feel
she was progressing after that, she could go to someone else.

The six months became three years and marriage. Smith said her
diet was changed and her approach was changed, more event-level
training instead of simple mileage in the pool. She worked more.
She rested more. No longer a student, she could now be a
full-time athlete. "No one works as hard as she does," Brian
says. "Let me tell you about her wedding day. She trained for
two hours in the morning. She came home, got married, had a bite
to eat, then went back to the pool for two more hours. Came home
again. Bite to eat. Bed. She wouldn't take a day off for her

The day--June 11--was too close to the Olympics.

"The biggest medal was the first one," Michelle says. "To win
that medal, to stand on the podium with the national anthem,
that was what I always had dreamed about. That was the one I
wanted. The rest were extra."

She was a constant in a meet that had a load of constants. U.S.
relay teams were constants, Americans taking all six relays,
including a world-record 3:34.84 in the men's 4x100 medley
relay. Amy Van Dyken of the U.S. was a constant, with four wins,
two in relays plus individual victories in the 50 free and the
100 butterfly. She became the first American woman in history to
win four gold medals in one Olympics. Van Dyken, who in high
school was teased because she was six feet tall, said she won
for "all the nerds out there." The U.S., overall, had a much
stronger meet than expected, taking 26 medals, 13 gold. "I think
what you've witnessed here is a perfect example of what it means
for a team to pull together and really take charge," U.S.
sprinter Gary Hall Jr. said after anchoring that 4x100 medley
relay in the final event of the meet.

Americans were everywhere. Janet Evans might have ended her
Olympic career on a down note, finishing out of the money in
both the 400 and the 800 frees, but 16-year-old Brooke Bennett
took Evans's old place on the 800 medal stand to become the
distance queen. Fifteen-year-old Beth Botsford won the 100
backstroke, 25-year-old teammate Whitney Hedgepeth finishing
second (then adding another silver in the 200 backstroke).

Brad Bridgewater won the men's 200 backstroke, with Tripp
Schwenk second. Everywhere. Sprinter Angel Martino earned four
medals, two bronze individual medals and two relay golds. Jenny
Thompson finished with three relay gold medals, to give her five
over two Olympics, tying Bonnie Blair for the most golds by a
U.S. woman.

China, which figured to win as many as eight golds in Atlanta,
was a constant in retreat, winning only one event and amassing
only six medals. New Zealand's Danyon Loader was a constant,
taking the 200 and 400 free. Russian sprinter extraordinaire
Aleksandr Popov was a constant, beating Hall by an eyelash in
both the 50 and 100 frees, races he had also won in Barcelona.
South Africa's breaststroker Penelope Heyns was a constant,
taking both the 100 and 200. The crowds at the Aquatic Center
also were a constant, 15,000-seat sellouts every night for seven
nights, raucous cheers and star-spangled flag-waving for every
American who moved to the starting line.

By the time the final night arrived, however, another set of
colors had been added to the picture. Green, white and orange.
The Irish had arrived. "I watched the first race at home, in a
pub in Dublin," Sarah Smith said. "Everybody was throwing
champagne everywhere until four o'clock in the morning. The
second race I watched in a TV studio in Dublin because they
asked me to come. The third race and the fourth... here. Dunnes
Stores sent all the rest of us over. They did a deal with
Michelle. My other sister, my brother, myself, my aunt, maybe
about 10 of us. And I heard that 400 more people came along,
paid their own way. Just to be here for the end."

The end, last Friday night, was the bronze in the 200 fly. Had
she won, Michelle would have been only the third swimmer, after
Mark Spitz in 1972 and Kristin Otto in '88, to win four
individual gold medals in one Games. She failed in a distracted
way: the strap to her goggles breaking before the race, her
rushing as she tried to find a second set, then borrowing a pair
from a Dutch swimmer. Everything happened in a hurry, but not an
unhappy hurry.

"I found myself crying on the podium," Michelle said afterward.
"I said to myself, Why am I doing this? Am I sad because I
didn't win another gold? I realized that wasn't it at all. I was
crying because I was so happy. This was the greatest week of my

The Irish version. There was good beer and good conversation.
The Guinness people had rented the second floor of the DeKalb
County courthouse in nearby Decatur and named it Irish House.
This was where the celebration was held.

A portrait of some former local official looked down from a
stately wall at all these visitors speaking in a brogue.
Michelle and Erik weren't there--offers of endorsements and
other business opportunities were arriving in bulk, demands
everywhere--but the family was there. The friends were there.

Sarah was saying how "mischievous" her sister was, always the
practical joker. Patricia was saying how she and Brian always
had to be in bed by nine, simply to take their daughters to
swimming practice. Brian was saying, well, Brian was saying that
he was the one person who had predicted this. Not to worry. He
said he had seen the progress over three years, seen it daily.
Drugs? Not a chance. "I was always a big one to talk about the
East Germans and the Chinese," he said. "What they did really
bothered me. If Michelle had taken drugs, I couldn't walk
outside the house, couldn't look people in the eye. Michelle,
too. She couldn't look people in the eye. We couldn't face

There was a better rumor--a strong rumor--that a national
holiday was going to be called for the day Michelle returned to
Dublin. What would that be like? There could be a holiday for a

Roll over, W.B. Yeats. Tell James Joyce the news.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Less than super in the 200 fly, Smith earned a bronze to go with her three gold medals. [Michelle Smith swimming]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Popov and Hall (second and third from left) were one-two here in the 50 free, as well as in the 100. [Overhead view of Aleksandr Popov, Gary Hall Jr. and other swimmers diving into swimming pool]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Games were a happy blur for Bennett, whose 800-free victory made her the new distance queen. [Brooke Bennett swimming]

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Van Dyken, here en route to victory in the 100 fly, won four gold medals for "all the nerds out there." [Amy Van Dyken swimming]