BARCELONA — They are American fixtures in the sport of swimming. But on a night when a U.S. women's relay team set a world record, they stood by the side of the pool and began to say their goodbys.
They are Matt Biondi, the swimming entrepreneur, whose five gold medals in Seoul helped make him into one of the sport's conglomerates. And Janet Evans, the teen-turned-grown-up, who found golden innocence at age 17 and silver disappointment at 20.
It was Biondi who understood the implications best. He led for half of his 100-meter freestyle before four swimmers--younger, faster swimmers--passed him. He finished in fifth place, out of the medals, more than half a second behind a cocky 20-year-old Russian named Alexandre Popov.
"You'd like to be a super-hero all your life," Biondi said. "Today my cape fell off. Everybody has a time to come and go, and I think today you may have seen the end."
To be sure, there are races left. Biondi will swim against U.S. rival Tom Jager in the 50 freestyle and possibly on the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay. Evans will begin competing Wednesday in the 800-meter freestyle, in which she is the world record-holder. But Biondi was correct. The end began Tuesday night.
Evans hadn't lost a 400-meter freestyle in 18 races, but she was caught in the final 50 meters by Germany's Dagmar Hase and beaten by 0.19 seconds. The winning time (4:07.18) wouldn't have earned a medal in 1988, when Evans set her world record of 4:03.85 and looked so amazed that it had happened.
It was also a night to say goodby to the East German women's swim powerhouse. Its 400 freestyle relay record of 3:40.57, set at the European championships in 1986 and presumed to have been steroid-driven, was nearly three seconds better than any such performance in history. But when Jenny Thompson--who had been disappointed twice already in these Games--followed Nicole Haislett, Dara Torres and Angel Martino with the fastest 100-meter split in history (54.01), that record was gone.
Such is the passing of time in swimming, where the very finest athletes come together in increments of years, not weeks, and where a career or an era can end as suddenly as a race can be swum.
"Of course, I know my rivals," Popov said. "But I'm not here just to race against Biondi."
Evans and Biondi fell with haunting similarity, in races contested consecutively on the program. Both went to the front, Evans leading by nearly a full second with 50 meters left, and Biondi coming to the surface first in his sprint and leading until a poor turn began his fade. Both understood what had taken place.
For Evans, it was a matter of too much too fast.
"I took it out hard, and I was hurting at the finish," she said.
That was that. Biondi felt sluggish in the morning and knew that he must get in the race quickly or face being blown out. "I got out there," Biondi said. "I gave myself a chance to win. Then I just didn't swim well."
Evans choked back tears throughout her postrace interview. She won a silver medal, which is nice. Of this, she tried repeatedly to convince herself.
"It's disappointing, sure," she said. "But I showed that I could hang in there for four years. You have to understand the pressure. . . . "
It was as much a release as it was a collapse.
Biondi was made famous by his performance in Seoul, and endorsements helped make him the first true professional swimmer in the United States.
Perhaps the demands on him to be a spokesman as much as a competitor made it impossible to maintain the standards he set. But he won't look back.
"These were the most enjoyable four years of my life," he said. "It's really important for everybody to understand that I'm not disappointed. You can't win all the time.
"My dog will still lick me in the face when I come home." His dog, a Labrador named Maya, won't remember that Biondi hadn't lost a 100-meter freestyle since the 1984 Olympics.
The excellence that Biondi and Evans once knew was duplicated in the races that followed theirs. Backstroker Martin Zubero, the University of Florida student who was born in Jacksonville, Fla., but competes for Spain, won his country's first gold medal in swimming.
He swam a measured 200 meters and went from the third to first in the final 50. Spaniards at the Picornell Pool--including King Juan Carlos--celebrated him at the finish with a swaying soccer-like chant.
And 17-year-old Hungarian Kristina Egerszegi became the first swimmer to win two individual golds when she won the 100-meter backstroke and broke the Olympic record for the second time in a day. American Lea Loveless won the bronze.
But it was the U.S. women's freestyle relay, and Thompson in particular, that provided the night's most redemptive moment.