New Pool of Talent

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It's all a blur: The women's 800-meter freestyle competition

They are too young to know fear, but already have the work ethic of mature professionals; they have a young person's hopes and the obsessiveness of those that have perhaps not yet dreamed enough. Mere teenagers most of them, their racing bodies are rock hard, their eyes fixed on record times, Olympic titles and fantasies of domination. Before her big race on Sept. 18, in her darkened room, stopwatch in hand, American breaststroker Megan Quann, 16, visualized victory over world-record holder Penny Heyns of South Africa. "When I swim at practice it's her that I see in my mind, and it's her that pushes me every day," said Quann. In her head she played out every stroke; she could feel the water in her fingers, taste it on her tongue, see every tile in the 50-m pool. "She's going down," Quann had taunted the dual Olympic champion before the Games — it was, indeed, a narrow vision splendid.

Every four years, a new generation of athletes appears from nowhere to grab the headlines and occupy prime time, upstaging aging heroes. Hard-nosed young swimmers from the U.S., Australia and Europe arrived on the world stage last week at Sydney's International Aquatic Centre, bewitching spectators with their triumphs in the water; six teenagers are taking home a total of eight individual gold medals from the 26 solo events contested in the pool. The class of 2000 did not come to Sydney to watch and learn — they came to win. Along with the tough-talking Quann, there was Ukrainian medley swimmer Yana Klochkova, 18; Romanian backstroker Diana Mocanu, 16; Hungarian breaststroker Agnes Kovacs, 19; American sprinter Anthony Ervin, 19. And, of course, there was Australian Ian Thorpe, 17, who after his relay swims finished with three gold and two silver medals, the biggest haul of the meet.

But "Thorpedo" the hometown hero, competing at his first Olympics, was upstaged by two relatively mature — and hitherto little known-swimmers from the Netherlands. Between them, Pieter van den Hoogenband, 22, and Inge de Bruijn, 27, won five gold medals and set six world records on their way to becoming the new royalty of international swimming. "Even the Australians are calling me the queen of the pool," said De Bruijn of the host country's enthusiasm for swimming and the 17,500 fans who rattled the roof with joy after each world record was rewritten. "I still feel like I am dreaming," she said after her 100-m freestyle victory. "It's a big cloud I am on." The question surrounding what the Dutchwoman might be on remained a dark cloud over the aquatic center despite eight glorious days of competition. "I absolutely do not think this is a drug-free Olympics," said U.S. women's coach Richard Quick. "I am not pointing the finger at anybody or any nation here. I'm going on intuition."

De Bruijn and the Dutch kept their chins forward and their chests out, as whispers about performance-enhancing drugs accompanied each milestone. "I had a really rough time with the accusations," said De Bruijn, who won the 50-m and 100-m freestyle events and the 100-m butterfly and suggested other swimmers were jealous of her achievements. There was no rush of congratulations from her rivals last week. "If you get a world record, they just want to chop your head off," said De Bruijn. U.S. veteran Jenny Thompson thought it was sad when "everyone who does well gets questioned" about drugs. "But at the same time it's sad that there's reason to question." The new king of the pool was more popular with his fellow swimmers. "[Van den Hoogenband] is probably on the most potent drug there is," said American swimmer Neil Walker. "Hard work!"

Coming into the Games, the talk around the pool was hardly about drugs in sport. Instead, the meet was touted as a showdown between the U.S. and Australia for the title of world's top swimming nation, with both countries initially trying to claim the status of underdog. By Saturday night, the U.S. had easily retained its champion nation's title, winning 33 medals, 14 of them gold — an improvement on both counts over the 1996 Atlanta Games. "When you're faced with a worthy opponent, it forces you to work for it," said American sprinter Gary Hall Jr., who shared gold with training partner Ervin after a dead heat in the 50-m freestyle. "We were able to use the threat of being dethroned as the best swimming nation to step up and reach another level we would have never reached."

America's marvelous performance was spread across its entire team: 39 out of 48 swimmers won medals. The U.S. won four of the six relays, including all three for women. Individual gold eluded Thompson, but her three relay performances brought her career medal tally to 10 (with eight gold), making her America's most decorated female Olympian. Ukrainian-born backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg cruised to victory in both the 100-m and 200-m events — but did not break a world record — and picked up a third gold in the medley relay team. Though savored, Krayzelburg's victories were expected. He is the current star of American swimming.

When Misty Hyman produced the swim of her life to beat Australian Susie O'Neill in the 200-m butterfly last Wednesday, it lifted the Americans; the Australians looked beaten, in the stands and in the pool. In the end, Australia and the Netherlands tied with five gold medals apiece. In Atlanta, Australia won two gold (and 12 medals in all), while the Netherlands scored a miserable two bronze medals. In Sydney, the host country won 13 minor medals compared with only three for the Dutch. The top three countries won 60 percent of all the swimming medals and broke 14 out of 15 world records.

The word was that the pool was fast. Often, that's enough to spur great performances from elite athletes, where the folklore and "feel" of a venue, combined with the stature of the Games and their ultra-competitive nature, can bring out the best in people. "A lot of it is psychological," said Hall, after five world records tumbled on the first night of competition. "Knowing a lot of records have been broken, it creates more." Australia's swimming-crazy fans screamed for gold and generously applauded the achievements of swimmers from all countries. That also helped bring in classic times and close races. "No matter what you've done in your career, the last eight days will never come close to it," said Australian Kieren Perkins, two-time Olympic 1,500-m freestyle champion. "Nothing can beat this venue."

Then there were those full body suits — though they are now a fact of life in international swimming and little was said about them last week. Of course, the aquatic center, with its temperature-controlled water and air, and the pool itself — 3.3 m deep, with special lane ropes to prevent backwash, two free lanes and a wet deck at the sides to stop waves — are state-of-the-art. "Yes, we are really going fast," said Van den Hoogenband, perhaps tired of the focus on a concrete and tile tank. "It's a nice pool... but personally I train real hard for these Olympics, and the other guys also trained really hard."

For Van den Hoogenband, who avoided big international meets for the past year, it all came together last week. He became the first man since Mark Spitz in 1972 to win the 100-m and 200-m freestyle finals — perhaps an even greater feat than the American's considering the Dutchman's stellar opponents. In winning the blue-ribbon sprint title, Van den Hoogenband ended the reign of Alexander Popov, who was trying to win his third straight Olympic 100-m freestyle gold. "It's not the end of the world, obviously," said the 28-year-old Russian, undefeated over the distance for seven years before the Dutchman beat him last year in Istanbul. "I have already got plenty of medals. I can't win everything. I have to share."

Sharing the spoils was a swimming lesson Van den Hoogenband also taught Thorpe in the 200-m freestyle, breaking a world record in the semifinal to turn up the pressure on the teenager. Thorpe seemed to cope better with defeat than his expectant countrymen, accepting his silver medal with composure and grace. "It was a great race and it was a real privilege to swim in it," said Thorpe after the 200 m. "I gave it my best shot and while I was a little disappointed with the time, I wasn't with the result." The new champ had been inspired by Thorpe's rise. "The whole year he was breaking world records," said Van den Hoogenband last Monday. "I was home practicing and training and he motivated me to train harder."

It seemed like the rest of Europe was training harder while the Americans and Australians shared a beaming, brilliant spotlight after their news-making performances a year ago in the same pool at the Pan Pacific championships. As with each new wave of individuals, so too with a shift in swimming firepower between countries. In Sydney, some commentators were pointing to the rise of Europe as a swimming power; the Continent has long been a force in the pool. Four years ago, European nations won 11 gold and a total of 38 medals; this time Europe secured 14 gold, 36 medals in total. The shift among countries around the world is more interesting: Past powers such as Hungary, Germany, the Russian Federation, Canada and Brazil have been replaced by newcomers Italy, Romania, Ukraine and Sweden. China did not win a swimming medal at these Games. Hinting at one reason for their success, Romania's Mocanu and Ukraine's Klochkova spoke of the lack of public pressure on athletes from countries where swimming has a low profile. Perhaps not for much longer, once their stunning deeds of double gold are fully digested.

In Sydney, Italy won its first Olympic gold medal in the pool — and tripled the stash by the end of the week. While Domenico Fioravanti won the breaststroke double, it was his compatriot Massimiliano Rosolino who will stay in the memory of swimming fans. Following a silver medal in the 400-m freestyle behind Thorpe and bronze behind the freakish duo in the 200-m freestyle, the 22-year-old Neapolitan stormed past American Tom Dolan to take gold in the 200-m individual medley. The crowd roared in rapture. The likable Italian, who lived in Australia as a child, danced, and danced, and danced. "We're writing history at the moment," he said after the race. "Unlike the U.S., who do it every day." It was a remarkable vault into the swimming elite, at a time when other out-of-the-box results were drawing slurs. "If you want to come and check me, my main drug is spaghetti parmigiano," said Rosolino when the drugs issue surfaced.

Megan Quann beat Penny Heyns, as planned, on Sept. 18. Her main motivation now is to better Heyns' world mark of 1:06.52 sec., stuck on her wall at home. "My expectations were two gold medals and to break two world records," she said after securing her second gold as part of the 4 x 100-m medley relay. She's a world record short, but time is on her side. "I have at least two more Olympics," she said on Saturday evening, as swimmers from around the world were looking for a party. Quann declared she would be back in the training pool some day soon, doing her customary 15 or 20 km a day. "The 2004 Olympics are just around the corner," she said. It sounded only partly in jest.