SYDNEY, Australia — The battle to become the fastest swimmer in the world turned personal, so Gary Hall Jr. was looking for allies in a pool full of rivals and a series of threatening obstacles.
The rivals: How about Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, or two-time defending champion Alexander Popov of Russia, who had once derided Hall's family as a bunch of "losers"?
The obstacles: How about a case of diabetes so serious it required as many as eight shots of insulin a day, or an estranged grandfather, Charles Keating Jr., who was sitting in prison the last time Hall competed in the Olympics? Or nearly losing his beloved father, former Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr., to an inexplicable case of toxic shock this week?
Hall was going to need more than the buddy system if he was going to come away with his first individual gold medal, in the sport's marquee race, the 50-meter freestyle Friday. Assistance was one lane away--club teammate Anthony Ervin, 19, of Valencia--and the stars must have been properly aligned Down Under.
The flamboyant Hall, 25, had helped the shy Ervin emerge from his cocoon. Ervin's youth and eye-popping talent motivated Hall. Around the pool deck at the Phoenix Swim Club, training with Coach Mike Bottom last summer, the duo earned a nickname.
Junior and Junior.
After 21.98 seconds of high drama, the Hall and Ervin union earned something else.
Twin gold medals.
The scoreboard at Sydney International Aquatic Center fooled Hall at first after he hit the wall.
"The first thing is, you check the name and number," Hall said. "I saw it was a tie, but I thought I tied Pieter. It all happened so fast. It's extremely rare."
Said Bottom, "When I realized they both tied, I was thanking God for that. In my mind, that's a miracle."
Ervin smiled broadly when asked whether he had ever tied in a race.
"I have one time, at junior nationals. I tied for 24th place," he said, drawing laughter in the interview room.
There is precedent for such a result. In 1984, Americans Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer had the first double gold medal, in the 100 freestyle. The rules were changed after Gunnar Larson and Tim McKee tied in the 400 individual medley in 1972, and the timing was taken to the thousandths of a second, and Larson won. Now, it is decided by hundredths of a second.
Van den Hoogenband won the bronze in 22.03. Popov was sixth.
"It feels great," Hall said. "I don't mind sharing the gold-medal podium. I couldn't be swimming with a nicer guy. We trained together every day of the summer. It was just like another day in practice."
Said Ervin, "Now, that I am here, and I've won the gold medal, it feels like I'm on top of the mountain. The Olympics is about racing, not times. I didn't even know where I was in the finish. It couldn't have happened better for us."
The molding of the talent was carried out by Bottom. He coached Ervin at California last season, and Ervin's mother, Sherry, said her son blossomed under his direction, winning both NCAA sprint titles.
The coach was a little concerned at first at Berkeley.
"When Anthony first came, we had to find him first," Bottom said. "We had a team meeting and we couldn't find him. So we sent some people out to find him. He was walking around, looking at things, observing.
"He's different. He's Anthony. Black, white, Asian--he's Anthony."
Ervin was forced to deal with some difficult issues when he made the Olympic team at the U.S. trials. The first swimmer of African American heritage to make the U.S. team, Ervin was questioned about race and wasn't prepared for the scrutiny.
Bottom helped him with those out-of-the-pool issues. Hall too is used to dealing with the media, although he has been severely tested in Australia. His quote about smashing the Australians "like guitars" was taken as an insult here and then Kieren Perkins referred to him as a drug cheat.
"I don't even know how to play the guitar," Hall said, joking.
Just as satisfying was finally taking out Popov after all these years.
"He's been the guy to beat for a long time, and that was a legitimate rivalry between Alex and I, and I don't know if this is where it ends," said Hall, who finished second to Popov in the 50 and 100 freestyle in the 1996 Olympics.
Hall's father said the only time his son was bothered by Popov's words was when the Russian swimmer criticized Hall's family. Hall is close to his relatives, and his family has supported him after the drug suspension for marijuana use and his battle with diabetes.
There was another health scare in Sydney, only this time it involved Gary Sr. On Wednesday night, he was taken to the emergency room in an ambulance, having gone into endo-toxic shock. His fingers got numb, his mouth felt dry and his blood pressure went down.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to live," he said. "I woke up and said to my wife Mary, 'Something is wrong.' I wasn't sure whether I was going to live or die."
Gary Hall Sr., one of the most decorated American swimmers, started thinking about swimmer Ron Karnaugh when he was having the episode. Karnaugh's father, Peter, died of a heart attack in the stands during the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics.
"I was thinking of Ron Karnaugh and what Gary would do if I died," he said.
Hall was alarmed at the morning prelims Thursday when a reporter told him his father had been in the hospital. Gary Hall Sr. recovered from the episode and was released after a series of tests, arriving at the Aquatic Center in time to watch his son earn the gold medal Hall Sr. had never won.