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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Thrills And Chills

Medal shared by Thompson and Torres in 100 freestyle is bronze, but it's full of irony as well.

September 22, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — Dara Torres stepped on the bronze platform first, and scooted all the way to the right.

Jenny Thompson stepped on next, and took a giant step to the left.

Torres shifted her shoulders in one direction. Thompson moved her hips in the other direction.

Torres looked up. Thompson glared down.

Medals around their neck, the two American swimmers were supposed to be standing together in glory.

It looked, instead, as if they were standing together in a stalled elevator.

The uncomfortable news for the U.S. team Thursday was that its two publicly bitter rivals had amazingly tied for third in the 100-meter freestyle.

The good news is that they didn't get into a shoving match during the Dutch national anthem.

And you thought there was nasty chlorine in the pool . . .

When Torres and Thompson touched the wall at the same time in the 100-meter freestyle--54.43 seconds--it might have been the only time they have agreed on anything.

Torres is giddy. Thompson is stoic.

Torres has a famous exercise commercial. Thompson posed for an infamously revealing photo.

Torres, making a comeback at 33, joined Stanford and U.S. Coach Richard Quick last winter.

Thompson, 27, had been with him nine years.

Torres gets all the ink.

Thompson, the most decorated U.S. female Olympian ever with nine medals, gets all the questions about why none of those medals has ever been an individual gold.

Swimming the same events, vying for the same coach's attention, working in the same pool . . .

Put it this way: Pretty soon they weren't working in the same pool.

The rivalry became so heated that Quick pulled Torres from the water and ordered her to work out at a different time and place.

Even in a country with a 50-meter pool in seemingly every neighborhood, Quick couldn't do anything about Thursday night.

Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, the eventual champion earning her second gold medal here, started the race in Lane 4 between the two Americans.

But nothing separated them at the end.

And everyone knew what that meant.

As a still-dripping Torres walked out of the pool area, the first thing out of her mouth was the only thing on anybody's mind.

"All I can say is, 'irony,' " she told a group of reporters with a smile.

Thompson walked up, stopped, and looked at her.

"They're not asking me anything, I'm just standing here," Torres said.

Thompson kept looking at her.

"You go ahead," Torres said.

So Thompson spoke for a moment about finishing a nine-medal career without one individual gold--"It just wasn't in the cards"--and then left.

Torres smiled again.

"At the end of the race, I looked up in shock," she said. "Then I just started laughing."

What else could anyone do?

Every sports team, like every company or organization in just about every part of the world, has its feuds.

What else can you do but laugh when those feuding parties swim the same length at the same time, then are rewarded for this vicious coincidence by being thrown together on the same three-foot space on worldwide television?

So the marvelously sculpted machines that have splashed through our consciousness for the last few weeks are humans like the rest of us.

So maybe understanding this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Then again, not everyone was laughing.

Said Thompson tersely, "We share a coach, we share a team, it's fitting that we share a medal stand."

Said Torres later, "I don't know if people have ever read anything about my difficulties with Jenny."

Some say it was Thompson who started the feud by becoming jealous of the attention given the vibrant Torres when she joined the Stanford-based club.

Others say it was Beverly Hills-born Torres, returning to swimming after a seven-year absence, who caused the problems by demanding such attention.

"I just made the decision as a coach, because of the chemistry of the situation, to have them train at different times," Quick said. "There was a kind of chemistry situation that needed to be addressed. When dealing with athletes who compete in the same events, that's not so unusual."

It is now.

Most U.S. swimmers who win medals in the same race appear together in the same news conference afterward.

Not here.

Thompson took the microphone alone, spoke for 10 minutes, then left almost immediately after Torres joined her.

When asked to pose for a medal-winners' hug at poolside with the other two top finishers, Thompson and Torres would not even put their arms around each other.

It was cold enough to be the Winter Olympics.

Quick said the chasm between the swimmers was even much more vast than it appeared.

"I think they were in two different places on the medal stand," he said. "Dara was celebrating the fact that she won her second individual medal, and feeling good about it. Jenny had just swum her last individual race with a goal she didn't accomplish."

In any other circumstance, that would have been the story Thursday, of how Thompson felt about ending her career with the one prize that eluded her.

"It's time for me to stop looking at what I don't have, and start looking at what I have," she said. "I have something to hang my hat on."

Indeed she does, even if that hat is white and funny-looking.

Crack wise if you will about Thompson being swimming's best designated hitter or field-goal kicker, how all seven of her gold medals have been in relays. But iron is iron.

Cheer too, for Dara Torres, for the strength of anyone who squeezes into the old clothes and goes back to work.

Just don't cheer for both of them in the same race unless you want water polo.

"Irony," Dara Torres repeated on a long and strange night. "Irony."

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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