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Amy Van Dyken went shopping a few weeks ago and ran into some old high school classmates. The very girls, it happened, who once tried to keep her off the school's relay swim team by complaining to the coach, throwing her clothes in the pool and spitting in her direction. A severe asthmatic, Van Dyken was a skinny girl with a persistent cough who struggled to make it through a race. But a decade of determination later, "it felt good," she says, "to walk into the mall and see these girls who wouldn't swim a relay with me because I swam so bad. I said, 'Hi, how're you doing? By the way, I'm swimming in five events in the Olympics. What have you been up to?'"

The bitterness of rejection, and the struggle to overcome a crippling affliction, forged a champion. "She decided to go faster and faster," her mother recalled last week. So fast that Van Dyken, now a 6-ft. 150-lb. sprinter, rocketed her way to four gold medals, an unprecedented haul for any American woman swimmer in a single Olympics. The 23-year-old Coloradan, daughter of a software-company president, anchored two relay victories, in the 4x100-m freestyle and the 4x100-m medley, and captured two individual golds, in the 100-m butterfly and the 50-m freestyle--a win that crowns her "the world's fastest woman" in water. She also charmed a worldwide television audience with her exuberant personality. "I'm really stubborn," she reflected, recalling her treatment in high school. "If someone tells me I stink, I'm going to try to prove them wrong."

Van Dyken was the most pleasant surprise on the underdog U.S. team, which, spurred on by roars from an unabashedly patriotic hometown crowd, captured 13 gold medals, more than three times as many as their nearest competitors, the Russians. Two of theirs belonged to Alexander Popov, who came in a touch ahead of American Gary Hall Jr. in both the men's 100-m and 50-m freestyle.

Hungary grabbed three gold medals thanks to backstroker Krisztina Egerszegi, who now has a career total of five individual golds. The reigning Chinese women, who had swept the 1994 World Championships, won but a single race. And a 26-year-old Dubliner, Michelle Smith, emerged from virtual obscurity to capture three golds--in the 400-m and 200-m individual medleys and the 400-m freestyle--plus a bronze in the 200-m butterfly.

But the newly dubbed "Irish Harpoon" left a wake of doubt and innuendo. Until she doused the competition last week, the diminutive Smith--5 ft. 3 in., 128 lbs.--was not ranked among the world's top-20 swimmers in any of the three races she won. Moreover, her extraordinary surge comes at an age when most swimmers are ready to retire. So while Ireland's pubs were staying open all night to celebrate their first female gold medalist in Olympic history, the green-eyed blond with the pixie smile was fending off a barrage of questions as to whether her dramatically improved performances were drug enhanced. Smith flatly denied it and credited her wins to new training techniques, a low-fat diet and more rest. But the fact that Smith's husband and coach, Dutch discus champion Erik de Bruin, is under a four-year ban for doping, fueled speculation, even though Smith was tested at eight competitions this year, and swimming officials have also collected urine samples four times in unannounced visits. "It is very easy to point an accusing finger when you are not doing well," she says of the charges.

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