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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Beard Sees Her Way Clear to Silver

July 22, 1996|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Her right foot slipped on the block, and Amanda Beard feared the worst was about to happen--a premature Olympic entrance into the water. "I didn't want to fall into the pool," she said, laughing.

The 14-year-old from Irvine shuns goggles, so guess what happened next? Something, perhaps a bug, she thought, got in her eye within the first few strokes of the 100-meter breaststroke on Sunday. Soon Penny Heyns, Samantha Riley and others were getting away from her, and Beard was seventh after the first 50 meters.

Just when her excellent adventure in Atlanta was about to screech to a halt, Beard went to work and challenged Heyns with a fearless and furious charge and almost caught the world-record holder, winning the silver medal in 1 minute 8.09 seconds, an American record, and said she felt "fantastic."

Heyns won the gold medal in 1:07.73, finishing off an extraordinary day. By swimming 1:07.02 in the morning preliminaries, she shattered her previous world record of 1:07.46. Hours later, the South African national anthem played. It was the first gold medal for the country since the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

"I knew the country had a lot of big expectations," said Heyns, who wasn't overly emotional about the milestone. "I tried not to let that weigh on me. I was just hoping to reach the wall."

The historic moment for South Africa was the most gripping international story of the day at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. For the Americans, there was the effervescent Beard winning the second silver of the Games for the women, and the businesslike Tom Dolan of Arlington, Va., winning the first gold medal for the entire U.S. swimming team, in his specialty, the 400 individual medley, in 4:14.90. Dolan, the world-record holder in the event, won a rousing battle against American teammate and rival Eric Namesnik, who took the silver in 4:15.25 and finished his career as "second fiddle" to Dolan.

Finally, the U.S. men's 800 freestyle relay team--Josh Davis, Joe Hudepohl, Brad Schumacher and Ryan Berube--put the proper punctuation on the proceedings with a formidable showing, winning the gold in 7:14.84. Sweden was well back in 7:17.56 for the silver and Germany finished third in 7:17.71.

Perhaps the longest in-the-pool celebration was by Costa Rica's Claudia Poll, who won the women's 200 freestyle (1:58.16), edging the much-heralded German star Franziska van Almsick. Poll stayed in the pool for several minutes, waving her mini-flag of Costa Rica at the fans.

Sunday finished with the Americans winning two golds and two silvers, and a fourth swimmer, Trina Jackson of Jacksonville, Fla., nearly took a bronze in the 200 freestyle, finishing one-hundredth of a second behind third-place Dagmar Hase of Germany.

Jackson, in tears, was so upset she could barely speak. One of her teammates, Kristine Quance of USC, was nearly crying in the morning after she failed to reach the finals of the 100 breaststroke, saying she felt "embarrassed."

Comforting Quance was none other than Beard, who came over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. For Beard, new lessons are being learned daily, and in typical fashion, she is doing it all very quickly.

It didn't really hit her right away that she set an American record, the one held by Anita Nall, who went 1:08.17 at Barcelona in 1992. Nall also won a silver medal with the record performance.

For Beard, it was the best second-place finish imaginable.

"Sometimes when I get second, I get mad," she said. "But Penny Heyns is the world-record holder. She's really nice to me. And from what I've seen and heard, she's worked really hard. I told her she did a fantastic job. I just tried to crack a joke and it didn't go over well. I said, 'Geez, I'm tired.' "

Heyns was probably still numb from surviving Beard's fierce finish, knowing the youngster's strength after losing to her a couple of months ago in Phoenix. "That's the way I race--I try to stay with her or near her," Beard said.

What was Heyns thinking about Beard in the final meters? "I better watch out," Heyns said, laughing. "I wasn't sure how fast I had gone out. I think Amanda did a superb job, I'd like to be able to look back on the race and have a look at what happened.

"She was very close, and I'm glad it was."

Said U.S. women's Coach Richard Quick: "That last 40 meters was phenomenal. She's not a big, strong girl. She doesn't have a great start or turn. But that will come with maturity. I think she'll do really well in the 200 breaststroke."

Beard was favored to do better in the 200, which is Tuesday, featuring essentially the same cast of players. Sunday's result certainly raises her confidence level for the attempt to become the youngest American swimmer to win a gold medal.

From the stands, Beard's personal coach, Dave Salo of the Irvine Novaquatics, sat with Team Amanda and had his own observations, saying he didn't think the problem with her foot slipping hurt her start.

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