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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Famine Ends With a Flourish

Swimming: Smith wins 400-meter individual medley and becomes first Irish woman to take gold.

July 21, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — "Patrick! Patrick!"

"Aye?"

"Here! Take the phone!"

"Who is it?"

"Dublin!"

Patrick Hickey's eyes brightened. "Dooblin!"

"Take it, Patrick," said Dermot J. Sherlock.

Hickey reached over the fence for the cordless phone, handed to him by an Irish radio reporter.

The reporter whispered: "We're on the air."

"Hello, Dublin! Is that you?"

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday July 22, 1996 Home Edition Special Section Part S Page 10 Sports Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Gold medals--Patrick O'Callaghan of Ireland won a gold medal in the hammer throw in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. His name was omitted from a story on Irish gold medalists in Sunday's Times.

The voice on the line asked Hickey how he felt.

"How do I feel? Over the moon!" said Hickey, who is Ireland's board member on the International Olympic Committee. "Isn't that right, Dermot? Up and over the moon, are we not?"

"Aye," said Sherlock, who heads Ireland's national sports council.

"Come on over, why don't you?" Hickey hollered into the phone to the voice in Dublin. "Our Michelle just became the first woman from Ireland ever to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games, and we're havin' a bit of hospitality tonight in our house here in Decatur in the state of Georgia where we're stayin', so come on over because the first five pints of Guinness are on me!"

With that, Ireland's distinguished IOC official handed back the phone and sprang into a fellow Irishman's arms, wrapping his legs around the fellow's waist.

Dermot J. Sherlock leaned nearer the fence and crooked his finger, motioning a reporter from Los Angeles to come closer.

"To tell ya the truth," he whispered, "we would have been delighted with a bronze."

Michelle Smith, 26, with red curls tucked beneath a bathing cap that read IRELAND and a swimsuit covering more of her than the ones they wore 100 years ago, won the 400-meter individual medley Saturday. No swimmer from Ireland, male or female, had ever even qualified for an Olympic final before, much less won a gold medal. Maybe that's because there are no 50-meter pools in all of Ireland.

Having failed to place in any of her events at the Olympics of 1988 and 1992, Smith accelerated her training for one last try. She said after winning the race, "I'm actually still in a little bit of shock.

"I did not know until just now that I am the first Irishwoman to win a medal. It's also gold, and I can't do much better than that, can I now?"

The famine is over.

Sherlock said, "There are 4 1/2 million people back in Ireland, and every last one of them will be dancing in the street for our dear Michelle!"

In 1932 at Los Angeles, hurdler Bob Tisdall stunned everyone at the Coliseum by misjudging the last hurdle in the 400-meter race, tripping over it, then stumbling toward the finish line to win the race.

No other Irishman was victorious until 1956. In a thrilling 1,500-meter race, Ron Delany outsprinted some of the world's great milers to the finish at Melbourne.

The next time an Irishman won in the Olympics was in 1992, when welterweight boxer Michael Carruth, an overwhelming underdog, looked his father in the eye before the championship bout and said: "Da, Ronnie Delany's time is up!"

Carruth scored a stunning upset, outpointing reigning world champion Juan Hernandez of Cuba.

Sherlock said, "Aye, I will never forget that day. Nor this one! I mean, this was not even the lass' best event!"

True, Smith actually is stronger in other races, and will compete here in three more.

But she made no promises. A graduate of the University of Houston's communications department, Smith married an Olympic discus thrower from the Netherlands and put her training in his hands, even though he knew little about swimming. Smith's progress has raised many eyebrows here. Her husband, Eric DeBruin, was suspended at one point from track and field after failing a drug test for an unspecified substance, but said Saturday that he was later reinstated.

Smith spends most of her time in Rotterdam, and is rarely in Ireland.

"I'm thinking I may have to spend a few weeks with my parents there now, say hello," Smith said.

Aye.

Hickey said: "That she should!"

Sherlock agreed, and they linked arms and danced in a circle.

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