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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

A Splash . . . And A . . .crash

Swimming: Botsford and Hedgepeth go 1-2 in the 100 backstroke. U.S. women's 400 relay team sets Olympic record; men win two silvers.

July 23, 1996|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The first gold medalist for the U.S. women at the Olympics is heading into her sophomore year in high school, bravely pierced her own navel and recently had a collection of "Sesame Street" Elmo dolls occupying her bedroom.

Introducing 15-year-old Beth Botsford of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a surprise winner of the 100-meter backstroke in 1 minute 1.19 seconds Monday. She made the Olympic team as a 14-year-old in March, along with two other 14-year-olds, Amanda Beard and Jilen Siroky.

Sunday, Beard nearly became the first American gold medalist, but it took the reigning world-record holder to beat her. Botsford's main competition came from a teammate who could be her older sister or even an aunt, 25-year-old Whitney Hedgepeth, who left her job teaching sixth-grade class to come out of retirement. Hedgepeth won the silver medal in 1:01.47.

The victory by Botsford--plus an American and Olympic record performance by the women's 400-meter freestyle relay team--shattered the exceedingly low expectations of U.S. Swimming, which had predicted zero gold medals for the women.

"If anything, it totally motivated us," Botsford said. "We're here to prove that we're the greatest swimming nation. It [winning] is a great feeling--I can't really describe it. It's wonderful."

Although there were no golds for the men Monday, they did win two silver medals. One was by Gary Hall Jr., who, in one of the best races of the day, lost to world-record holder Alexander Popov by seven-hundredths of a second in the men's 100 freestyle. Hall led at 50 meters and went stroke for stroke with Popov in the final 50, getting out-touched at the wall. Popov won in 48.74, and Hall was second in 48.81, a personal best.

"I took it out fast," said Hall who shadowboxed on the deck before the race. "I was trying to hold on. It was a hell of a race. That's what competition is all about."

This time, Popov quit trying to psych out Hall--other than a couple of looks--so perhaps the Russian was finally ready to give him some respect.

"I didn't want to break him down before the race, so I wasn't even trying," said Popov, who became the first man to repeat in the Olympic 100 freestyle since Johnny Weissmuller in 1924 and 1928. "Why did I want not to break him? There was no need to. I have to feel the pressure on myself, not on the others."

Popov was asked about Weissmuller. "Yeah, I know [of] him," he said. "I never met him, unfortunately."

The other American silver came from Tom Malchow in the men's 200 butterfly (1:57.44) in another race won by the reigning world-record holder, Denis Pankratov of Russia in 1:56.51.

"It's not my personal best, but I'm happy," said Malchow, who will be a sophomore at Michigan. "At this meet, it's not for time. The medals really count."

In all, the American men and women have won four gold, seven silver and one bronze for 12 medals in three days. The Chinese women continued to struggle even though they won their second medal, a silver in the relay. World-record holder He Chihong failed to reach the finals in the 100 backstroke, qualifying 26th in 1:05.87. Her world record was 1:00.16, set at the 1994 World Championships.

"I think that probably out-of-competition drug testing has helped some, and maybe that's flustered them a bit," Jenny Thompson said. "We're just having a tremendous meet in knocking them out of finals. But a lot of countries are.

"It's not a one-country show like in '94."

Thompson was the anchor on the winning relay, which won in 3:39.29, surpassing the Olympic record of 3:39.46 set at Barcelona in 1992. Amy Van Dyken had a split of 53.91, the second fastest relay split in history behind Le Jingyi's 53.81 in 1994.

The other members of the relay were Angel Martino and Catherine Fox, who became the first Asian American swimmer to win gold.

The first double gold medal winner was Ireland's Michelle Smith, who won the 400 freestyle in convincing fashion (4:07.25), two days after taking the 400 individual medley, which had been Ireland's first Olympic medal won by a female.

"It's unbelievable," said Smith, who survived a late appeal over her entry in the 400 freestyle. "I can't really believe it myself. I have forgotten the controversy, and it feels great. I thought I would have the German girls on my tail the whole way. I went out hard the first 200 and they couldn't catch me after that.

"They'll be celebrating in Ireland tonight--a second Christmas, Easter."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Medalists / Swimming

MEN'S 100 FREESTYLE

Gold: Alexander Popov, Russia

Silver: Gary Hall Jr., United States

Bronze: Gustavo Borges, Brazil

MEN'S 200 BUTTERFLY

Gold: Denis Pankratov, Russia

Silver: Tom Malchow, United States

Bronze: Scott Goodman, Australia

WOMEN'S 400 FREESTYLE

Gold: Michelle Smith, Ireland

Silver: Dagmar Hase, Germany

Bronze: Kirsten Vlieghuis, Netherlands

WOMEN'S 100 BACKSTROKE

Gold: Beth Botsford, United States

Silver: Whitney Hedgepeth, United States

Bronze: Marianne Kriel, South Africa

WOMEN'S 400 FREE RELAY

Gold: United States

Silver: China

Bronze: Germany

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