ATLANTA — The first American medal of these Olympic Games was in the hand of sprinter Angel Martino--born in Americus, Ga., no less--and before you could say bronze medal it was in the hand of Trisha Henry.
On Friday, Henry was in the hospital after suffering a setback in her fight against urinary-tract cancer. Saturday, she pushed forward because she had to fulfill her duty as a volunteer here at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. And a job is a job.
Henry, 20, put in her hours on the deck, and Saturday turned out to be the sweetest day she has had in months. Martino finished third in the women's 100-meter freestyle in 54.93 seconds and moved into first place in Henry's heart.
"I gave it to Trish Henry--she's fighting for her life with cancer," Martino said of Henry, who has attended swimming camps run by Martino's father, Kirt. "I think she's a hero."
Henry, who also had her kidney removed, was beaming as she unexpectedly met with several hundred media members at a news conference, saying: "In her terms, she looks at me who is struggling against cancer, she looks at life in the right perspective. I've been swimming since I was 7 1/2. I'm 20 now. I just wanted to be part of something as special at the Olympics."
Martino's spirit of generosity was only one of the emotions on the opening day of Olympic swimming. The Americans won two silvers and a bronze.
One of the silvers was by fast-rising Jeremy Linn of Knoxville, Tenn., who set an American record of 1:00.77 in the 100 breaststroke, and the other was from Allison Wagner of Gainesville, Fla., in the 400 individual medley.
On top of everything else, the once-formidable Chinese women's team floundered in dramatic fashion.
For the non-swimming powers, it was a proud day as the first swimming gold medals were won by New Zealand (Danyon Loader in the 200 freestyle in 1:47.63), Ireland (Michelle Smith in the 400 IM in 4:39.18) and Belgium (Fred Deburghgraeve in 1:00.65 in the 100 breaststroke). Earlier, Deburghgraeve set the world record in the morning preliminaries in 1:00.60.
There was a brief frightening moment, also, on the pool deck when American sprinter Amy Van Dyken collapsed because of leg cramps after she finished fourth in the 100 freestyle in 55.11, a personal best. Van Dyken was briefly disoriented and dizzy, needing therapy from U.S. team doctors after the cramps spread to her quads and hamstrings. Later on, however, she was able to warm down and spoke with reporters.
"I just gave it 110%," she said. "I gave it my all. It was afterward that I had a hard time getting out of the pool. I had to sit down and I started to stand up and my leg collapsed on me. It hurt like a dog."
World-record holder Le Jingyi of China won the race in 54.50, but Van Dyken led at 75 meters before rapidly fading. Germany's Sandra Volker was second in 54.88.
"I bit it, my all wasn't good enough for first, second or third, but fourth isn't too bad," Van Dyken said. "I'm just excited to swim my [other] races. I have a lot of time between now and the 50."
Said U.S. women's Coach Richard Quick: "She's just an emotional competitor who just hates to lose. She gives it her all and her legs just gave out from under her."
Van Dyken suffered from a severe form of asthma, and the initial concern from those watching in the stands was that she had an attack, but she has been fine here in Atlanta. Cramps also hit her at the Olympic trials, out of public view. "Here, you have to walk so far," she said. "It's kind of a zoo. When you're in pain it just screws up everything. I got a little dizzy."
Martino and Van Dyken will both be in the pool again on Friday in the 50 freestyle, facing Le. But no matter what happens, Martino, 29, already made history as the oldest American to swim for an Olympic championship and, at least for one night, wasn't answering questions about her failed drug test in 1988, which kept her from going to Seoul.
Four years later, Martino resurfaced with a bronze in the 50 freestyle at Barcelona. This time, she worried that the color of the medal may have disappointed the home folks, saying: "I'm sorry it wasn't a gold. I did my best."
Sorrow was not in Linn's vocabulary, although he wished he could have had a few more meters to catch Deburghgraeve. After botching the turn, Linn closed well in the final 20 meters and just missed winning on the touch. He broke the U.S. record of 1:01.40 set by Seth van Neerden in 1994.
"I knew I was going to have to come on strong, the last 10 meters I was reeling him in, he just got me at the finish," Linn said. "I couldn't be more pleased with my swim. Yesterday, it would have been a world record, now it's an American record. I was just happy to be at the Olympics. We both swam a great race."
Of the final 10 meters, Linn said, "I was thinking wall, wall, wall."