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Scrutiny of De Bruijn Familiar Story to the Irish

Women's swimming: Controversy surrounding Michelle Smith, not her medals, had lasting impact in Ireland.


SYDNEY, Australia — The names are almost the same and the questions are exactly the same.

Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, who set a world record in winning the 100-meter butterfly Sunday, returns to the Sydney International Aquatic Center pool for the 100 freestyle preliminaries today.

Although she has never tested positive, the Dutch swimmer has faced widespread speculation that her performances have been assisted by banned drugs. Australian world-record holder Susie O'Neill went so far as to say the spree of world records by De Bruijn earlier this year were "pretty sus," as in suspect.

Irish swimmers have heard this kind of speculation in the past. Four years ago, Ireland's Michelle Smith, who is married to Dutchman Erik de Bruin, won three gold medals and a bronze at Atlanta amid rumors that she was not clean.

Smith shocked the sports world and sent her countrymen into joyous celebration when she upset a host of favorites to win the women's 400 individual medley and added two more one-sided victories in the 400 freestyle and the 200 individual medley, and finished with a bronze medal in the 200 butterfly.

There were celebrations in Ireland and the growth of the sport in the small country seemed certain.

Not quite.

The swimming boom never materialized for many reasons. Smith spent the post-Atlanta period fighting off allegations and drug-testers. Then her swimming career ended when she was banned by FINA, the sport's international governing body, after it found her guilty of manipulating a drug test.

Her urine samples were found to contain large amounts of alcohol, which could potentially mask enhancing agents.

Also, the Irish Amateur Swimming Assn. was disbanded by the government last year and replaced by another governing body after a sex abuse scandal. A former Irish swimming coach was sentenced to 12 years in jail for sexually abusing young girls.

Similar allegations were made against a second former swimming coach.

After all this controversy, it is almost as if 1996 and the euphoria over Smith's Olympic victories never happened, although she has not been required by FINA to return her medals.

Here, Ireland is just like any other small country--regarding swimming, at least--back in the shadows of the likes of the Americans and Australians.

There are only five Irish swimmers at the Olympics, three women and two men.

"If we had a mixed relay, we'd be in business," said breaststroker Andrew Bree of Belfast.

He was in the interview area Saturday and was the first Irish swimmer to compete in Sydney but did not advance to the semifinals, swimming a personal-best 1:04.58 in the preliminaries of the 100 breaststroke. Bree was to compete again this morning in the 200 breaststroke.

Among the other Irish swimmers is 19-year-old Chantal Gibney of the Trojan Swim Club in Dublin. Gibney, who has been training in Florida for the past year under American distance star Brooke Bennett's coach, was entered in four freestyle events.

None of the Irish swimmers is a medal contender, or ranked in the top 50 in the world, for that matter.

But Bree, 19, is looking ahead and using this for experience, marveling at the spirited and electric atmosphere.

"Unbelievable. You just walk out and you just look up and you can't see up to the top," he said. "I saw a few Irish flags flying around, so it was good."

Bree's career moved forward when he moved to Brisbane, Australia, to train in 1998.

"It's come so quick. I came back with a whole new attitude," he said. "I've just seen how things operate over here and what it takes to swim at an Olympic level."

What promises to be an interesting melding of cultures will come when he attends the University of Tennessee. Bree can't imagine what a football game will be like at Knoxville.

"I've heard about it. I got an e-mail saying there were like 109,000 people there," he said.

He never thought he would end up in Knoxville or in Sydney back when Smith was winning those gold medals in Atlanta.

Bree did not mention the drug controversy when asked about Smith.

Still, it says something when the better Irish swimmers are training elsewhere.

"Swimming in Ireland is coming along, it's still behind," Bree said. "I hope everyone at home will be watching and then hopefully the kids will start swimming after something like this."

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