BARCELONA — A woman from China won an Olympic gold medal in swimming Sunday and the talk was of drugs. Steroids. Muscles. Another woman from China won a silver and the talk continued.
It had to be the drugs .
Nelson Diebel can tell you about drugs.
No, not about the drugs he used--mostly marijuana, he will tell you now, and whatever alcohol he could find when he was a teen-ager from the Chicago area. Not about the ones he kept using when his mother sent him to a Connecticut prep school and he got expelled for fighting. Not the ones he planned on continuing to use when he was enrolled, quite against his will, at another prep school, the Peddie School near Princeton, N.J.
No, this is the drug you feel like you have taken when you stand on the highest level of the victory platform at the Olympic Games, when you have won the United States' first gold medal of 1992 and they are playing the national anthem in front of your mom and your dad and the coach who rescued you from yourself.
"It's like, the best high you can ever get," Diebel said. "I was freaked out. It was awesome. You've really got to be there to know."
Diebel won the 100-meter breaststroke Sunday, setting an Olympic record of 1:01.50 and filling the role that Jenny Thompson was expected to fill in the first swimming final of the Games, the 100-meter freestyle. Thompson was upset by Zhuang Yong of China, who swam 54.64 and broke Thompson's 8-hour-old Olympic record, set in the preliminaries. American Summer Sanders took a bronze behind 17-year-old Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi and China's Lin Li in the 400-meter individual medley, the weakest of her four individual events.
Diebel climbed into the Picornell Pool under a still blazing Mediterranean sun at 6:25 p.m. Barcelona time, 20 minutes after Thompson had been beaten. If he seemed something less than the rescuer of U.S. hopes, his very presence in an Olympic final was remarkable.
Diebel, the 21-year-old son of a divorced stockbroker and community college history professor, was bright as a youth, but chronically rebellious and misdirected. "It was unbelievably frustrating," said his mother, Marge. "Nels has so many talents in all areas. I think he and society had a lot to lose if he didn't use his talents."
Said her son: "I was a dirt bag and a loser. I had problems with drugs and alcohol. I wouldn't want to be the type of person I was six years ago."
It was in the middle of this period, after he had been expelled from the Kent School, that his mother forced him to stay in the East and try another prep school. Peddie took him, and there he met a hulking swimming coach, Chris Martin. It would be the turning point in Diebel's life.
Diebel had swum as a youth, but not much in those wild years. He could cover 100 yards of breaststroke in 1:08, roughly 1:18 for 100 meters. Martin has hounded him since, producing this finished product.
"He made me look at what I had done to myself and realize how foolish it was," Diebel said. "He said, 'You will do this, you will do that.' If he said, 'Jump,' I said, 'How high?' Any time a 6-3, 250-pound man tells you to do something, it's a good idea to listen."
Martin, an assistant coach for the U.S. team, said: "All I did is set the course. Nelson had to swim it."
There have been detours. Before the U.S. trials in 1988, Diebel suffered broken wrists jumping off of a bleacher scaffolding in Princeton, after which he sat in his hospital room and watched the Seoul Games, vowing with Martin to make the team in Barcelona.
Diebel has since been among the best breaststrokers in the world. He drew lane 3 for the final and went promptly to the front, turning at the 50 in 29.09, a tenth of a second in front of world record-holder Norbert Rosza of Hungary.
He only lengthened the lead coming home, pushing his torso out of the water, the surest sign that a breaststroker is in sync and not about to fade. Martin watched from the seats.
"It's very rare in a 100 that you can pick a winner at 75 meters, but I knew he had it," Martin said. "That last 25, it seemed like there was a lot more than swimming going on."
When Yong beat world record-holder Thompson in the 100 freestyle ("I just choked, big-time, coming home," Thompson said), questioning turned to steroids. The fast-rising Chinese are thought of as the East Germans of the 1990s.
"It's absolutely wrong to say that," the 20-year-old Yong said.
"There is no scientific basis for saying that."
Sanders, meanwhile, swam a personal best 4:37.58 in the 400 individual medley.
And Martin recalled that last week at the swimming team's training camp in Narbonne, France, Diebel wanted to take a ride on a huge water slide, which Martin prohibited. It was the rebel again, moving toward the edge and challenging authority.
Martin said to Diebel: "You're going to make it hard until the very last second, aren't you?"
Diebel said, "Yeah, but it'll be worth it."
* MEN'S 100-METER BREASTSTROKE
GOLD: Nelson Diebel (United States)
SILVER: Norbert Rozsa (Hungary)
BRONZE: Philip Rogers (Australia)
* MEN'S 200 METER FREESTYLE
GOLD: Evgueni Sadovyi (Unified Team)
SILVER: Anders Holmertz (Sweden)
BRONZE: Antti Alexander Kasvio (Finland)
* WOMEN'S 100-METER FREESTYLE
GOLD: Zhuang Yong (China)
SILVER: Jenny Thompson (United States)
BRONZE: Franziska Van Almsick (Germany)
* 400-METER INDIVIDUAL MEDLEY
GOLD: Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary)
SILVER: Lin Li (China)
BRONZE: Summer Sanders (United States)