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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SWIMMING

High Water Marks : Van Dyken Finishes With Record Fourth Gold Medal

July 27, 1996|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Amy Van Dyken knows the dreadful, sinking feeling of being picked last for a team--or worse yet--knowing her teammates wanted her kicked off.

Four gold medals later, Van Dyken had a message to deliver to those cruel schoolmates from her hometown in Englewood, Colo., reveling in the knowledge they were couch potatoes now watching her on television at night with Bob Costas and in the morning with Katie Couric.

"This is a victory for all the nerds out there," Van Dyken said Friday, failing to suppress a trademark giggle.

"To all the girls who gave me a hard time in high school, I say, 'Thank you.' "

Van Dyken handed world-record holder Le Jingyi of China a stunning defeat in the women's 50-meter freestyle at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, winning in a U.S. record 24.87 seconds. Le was second in 24.90. It was Van Dyken's fourth gold medal, following her victories in the 100 butterfly and on the 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay.

The 23-year-old with debilitating asthma became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. It was a long way from when she once hid in the locker room with a towel over her head, listening to teammates plot to get her thrown off the high school relay team.

Friday was supposed to have been another night of all Michelle Smith, all the time. But the Irish swimmer finally ran out of energy in her bid to win a fourth individual gold medal at these Games. She finished third in the 200-meter butterfly behind the one-two finish of Australians Susan O'Neill and Petria Thomas.

Controversy has been attached to Smith the entire meet, and her final race of the 1996 Olympics was no different. When the swimmers walked out on the pool deck, Smith was not there. The introductions started and Lane 5 was vacant, but then she appeared.

"I almost thought she wasn't going to turn up for the race," O'Neill said.

It turned out that Smith was not being theatrical or into psyching out the Aussies. Athletes are required by the rules to march out together, but apparently the FINA technical committee--in an impromptu meeting--declined to take action, realizing the delay was not her fault.

"My goggles snapped outside, and I was looking for my husband," Smith said. "This time, he decided to watch up in the stands, so he was nowhere to be found. I eventually had to borrow a pair from one of the Dutch girls. I asked them to wait for me and they wouldn't wait."

Smith, who previously won the 400 individual medley, the 400 freestyle and the 200 individual medley, was not much of a threat and said the goggle incident bothered her.

"It wasn't really me in the first 100 meters," Smith said.

Before Smith, Ireland had won only eight gold medals in the Olympics.

As for the Americans, they surpassed the low expectations put out by U.S. Swimming, winning 13 golds, 11 silvers and two bronze for a total of 26 medals. In 1992, the U.S. team won 11 gold medals and a total of 27.

Van Dyken helped account for four of the women's seven gold medals here, and she was asked how it compared to Janet Evans' four gold medals.

"Comparing myself to Janet is like apples and oranges," Van Dyken said. "I have two in relays. But four in one Olympics--that's kind of cool."

Then she giggled--probably thinking again of those old teammates in Colorado.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Swimming Leaders

The final 1996 Olympic swimming medal tally:

*--*

Country G S B T United States 13 11 2 26 Australia 2 4 6 12 Germany 0 5 7 12 Russia 5 1 2 8 China 1 3 2 6

*--*

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