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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

McMahon Not Neutral About Winning the Gold

Triathlon: Swiss competitor outruns Australia's Jones to capture inaugural event.

September 16, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Brigitte McMahon had envisioned this so many times.

She saw herself sprinting to the finish line of the women's Olympic triathlon against Australian favorites Michellie Jones and Loretta Harrop, who would be buoyed by the roars of their flag-waving compatriots. She saw herself remaining determined and drawing on all of her physical and mental reserves to keep from faltering.

So when Saturday's race actually came down to the final 200 meters, with McMahon and Jones elbow to elbow, the Swiss-born McMahon was prepared.

Almost.

"I wasn't picturing myself in the lead. But when I pictured this, I was always feeling really happy, so I would be able to do it and keep a positive feeling," she said. "Just to qualify for the Olympic Games meant a lot to me."

Winning the first women's Olympic marathon meant infinitely more to her.

"It's overwhelming," said McMahon, who outraced Jones, the sentimental favorite, to win by 2.03 seconds. "Being in the top 10 is very good. I always said the top eight would be my goal. Once I passed eighth place and got a diploma [certificate of participation], I said, 'I did whatever I wanted to do.' "

Although Jones is known for her late kicks, her legs simply wouldn't carry her past McMahon as they ran shoulder to shoulder along a course lined with an estimated 200,000 spectators along the Botanical Gardens and Sydney's magnificent harbor.

McMahon's winning time was 2 hours, 40.52 seconds, followed by Jones (2:00.42.55) and Magali Messmer of Switzerland, 28.31 seconds behind at 2:01:08.83. McMahon was ninth after the first phase, the nearly mile-long, open-water swim, and 13th after the second phase, the 24.8-mile bike race. Her time of 35:13.64 in the 6.2-mile run was second-fastest in the 48-woman field, enabling her to prevail.

"I started triathlon in 1994. I used to be a swimmer before," McMahon said. "But I never competed at a level like this."

The three U.S. competitors acquitted themselves well, led by a fourth-place finish by Joanna Zeiger of Baltimore. Zeiger, a Ph.D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, dropped her asthma inhaler as she pulled it out of her waist pouch in the first lap of the two-lap race and fell behind the leaders as they ascended a hill on the back of the course. She still recorded the fifth-best time in the final portion of the race to finish in 2:01:25.74, grinning and clutching an American flag she had grabbed from a fan as she crossed the finish line.

"I probably would have done the same thing [if she held onto the inhaler], so I don't think it really matters," said Zeiger, who was ranked 38th in the world. "I'm so excited and proud. Going into this race people asked me about my goals. My goal was just to be right in the middle of the race. During the first lap of the bike race, I popped my head up and said, 'Wow, this is so exciting.'

"I'm not going to stand up there and get a medal around my neck, but I couldn't be prouder."

Sheila Taormina of Livonia, Mich., a swimming gold medalist in the 4x400 meter relay at Atlanta in 1996, led by 35 seconds after Saturday's open-water swim but lost ground in the next two phases. She was 14th in the bike race and 13th in the run to finish sixth overall, in 2:02:45.91. Jennifer Gutierrez of Denver, a former Pepperdine swimmer, finished 13th at 2:03:38.48. She was ninth after the swim but had the second-best bike time to stay in contention during the run, where she had the 23rd-best time.

Although Taormina didn't repeat her Atlanta success, she hardly felt like a loser. "I won't get that flag raised in my honor and a gold medal around my neck, but this is special," she said. "By no means do I need a gold medal to be a happy human being."

Jones, who isn't a strong swimmer, was a solid eighth as the competitors raced out of the 50-degree waters. She gained a few precious seconds while she made the transition from sea to bike. "I wanted to have a good swim to set up the rest of the race, and that's what happened," Jones said.

She had a good bike ride on the technically challenging course, taking a half-second lead over Joelle Franzmann of Germany and a 10.1 second lead over McMahon after the second phase. Jones' 10k time of 35:25.77 was the third-fastest.

"The Australians had a lot of pressure from the media and all the fans around them," said McMahon, who had a smaller cheering section in her New Hampshire-born husband, Mike, and 3-year-old son, Dominic.

"I'm sure the Australians had a lot more pressure than we had. Magali and I felt we were in great condition."

Desipte the exhortations of what sounded like all of Sydney, Jones wasn't in good shape in the late stages.

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