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Electrifying Perkins Swims Like an Icon


SYDNEY, Australia — If there was any doubt about the celebrity of the 1,500-meter men in this country, all it takes is a quick survey of the media.

"Race That Stops a Nation."

This headline was in one local paper, promoting this morning's preliminaries of the 1,500, only a few days after another scribe called up the girlfriend of Grant Hackett and asked if they had broken up.

Hackett has been struggling and, well, there has to be some reason, right?

Somehow, it isn't in the job description of most American reporters to hunt down the women of the kings of chlorine.

But Hackett's woes were an afterthought by the time Australian distance icon Kieren Perkins finished his morning prelim at the Sydney International Aquatic Center. The crowd treated Perkins, who is going for his third Olympic gold medal in the 1,500, like a rock star, chanting: "Kieren, Kieren, Kieren."

For those with short memories, this was a reminder that there was life in Australian swimming before Ian Thorpe.

Perkins sent a jolt through the building with his best swim in more than four years, breaking the 15-minute barrier. He had the fastest qualifying time--14 minutes 58.34 seconds, which was 6.77 seconds ahead of USC's Erik Vendt.

"It was kind of demoralizing," Vendt said of the Perkins swim.

U.S. national men's coach Mark Schubert could not remember anyone breaking 15 minutes in a heat.

"I don't think it's ever needed to happen," he said. "Everybody was watching, knowing you can't play around. . . . I think it's going to be a phenomenal race. The fastest field ever. There was a little cat and mouse going on this morning."

Said Perkins: "It was great walking out in front of the crowd before the race. I could see my family. I was relaxed, just ready to go. For me, at this stage in my career, I could honestly come out of tomorrow's race and swim the same time and be absolutely ecstatic.

"Six months ago, I didn't ever get under 15 minutes again."

Hackett was third-fastest qualifier, and another American, Chris Thompson of the University of Michigan, made the final, finishing fifth in 15:11.21. No American advanced to the 1,500 final in Atlanta.

Perkins overshadowed another Olympic record from Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands. De Bruijn had the fastest qualifying time in the 50 freestyle, 24.46 seconds. The Olympic record had been held by Wenyi Yang of China (24.79) at the 1992 Games.

"I feel on top of the world," she said. "It feels like I am in a dream."

Americans Dara Torres and Amy Van Dyken were the second and third-fastest qualifiers. Torres, who won a bronze medal in the 100 freestyle, has been troubled with a sore shoulder but said it felt better this morning.

It may not matter.

"It's going to take a world record to win it," Van Dyken said. "I didn't think that before the Olympics, but Inge is swimming so fast."

The American men were the third-fastest qualifiers in the 400 medley relay in 3:38.59. Swimming the prelims were Neil Walker, Ed Moses, Tommy Hannan and Jason Lezak of Irvine.

"Every night we're going faster and faster," Walker said of the U.S. swim team. "We're building a fire. It's getting bigger every day and hotter."

For the American women, the relay of Courtney Shealy, Staciana Stitts, Ashley Tappin and Van Dyken qualified fourth, in 4:06.16, behind Australia, Japan and Germany.

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