That's as it should be in the country that considers swimming its national sport. And that is why the Australian crowd this morning roared for all the racers no matter the flag on their uniform as they approached the finish. In the first heat, a Vietnamese woman trailed the field so badly the leaders were virtually out of the pool by the time she touched the wall but she was brought home in that last 30 feet by an audience that adores athletic effort.
This was a day Australians would remember for the rest of their lives. Ian Thorpe, Australia's 17-year-old Water King, took his throne today. Thorpe swam like a shark followed by blubbery tunas, outpacing the field in the 400-meter freestyle by 10 feet and destroying the old Olympic record with his time of 3:40.59. The center exploded in joy I'm not sure, but I think the roof actually did come off the building. But in typical Australian understated style, Thorpe smiled modestly and barely waved. Thorpe is the bane of a sport photographer's existence: They beg him smile or yell, or to raise his entire arm, maybe even two, out of the water when he wins.
About an hour later, Thorpe was at it again, only this time he ripped the heart out of the greatest swimming machine ever created: the U.S. men's 4 X 100-meter relay team. The Yanks have never been beaten in an Olympics and usually aren't seriously challenged. Tonight the Australians started with a world record time for the first 100 meters and kept on going through to Thorpe's anchor leg. The U.S. team broke the world record, but the Australians broke them: Thorpe touched the wall .19 seconds in front of Gary Hall Jr. and Australians let loose a national yell of joy they've been holding in for 44 years, since the last time the Olympics were held here. "Sport is how we've always tested oursleves," said Nicole Jeffrey, the swimming correspondent for The Australian newspaper. "And after beating the U.S. tonight in a race they've owned, we have a chance to be the number-one swimming nation in the world."
American Jenny Thompson might have something to say about that. Thompson, who calls Australia "Swimming Heaven," strode to the starting blocks like this was her old rec center pool in her hometown of Dover, N.H. Thompson likes it Down Under and Australians love her. Thompson has spent the last two winters in Australia, training with her friends. But even friends can be beaten. Thompson, 27, helped the American women comfortably win the female version of the 4 X 100, and with that win she became the first American woman ever to win six gold medals.
The American women set yet another world record in their 4 X 100 race, one of five world marks set tonight. No one has said it yet, but this may just be the beginning of the fastest Olympics in history. And while most of the credit goes to the athletes, even they know that the Australian crowd is like an invisible propeller to help them catch their dreams.