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U.S. Thanks Aussies for Wave It Was

September 24, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

SYDNEY, Australia — Dara Torres was crying and she couldn't stop. It wasn't that Torres wasn't overjoyed about her two newest medals. She was.

Torres was thrilled about her bronze in the women's 50-meter sprint and gold in the women's 400 medley relay. But Torres was crying for more than that, for much more than that.

"I mean, I'm happy," Torres said. "But I guess I'm just bummed that it's over."

Olympic swimming ended Saturday and that is truly a bummer.

The competition has been so good, the competitors so classy that the fun and frolicsome stuff has made us forget the constant undertone of who might--or should--fail a drug test.

Maybe someone will test positive. If someone does, the punishment should be more severe than a useless suspension. Jail wouldn't be too harsh.

For to taint this Olympic swim competition would truly be a crime.

The whole Australian swim team took a victory lap after the last race Saturday. It was a victory lap for themselves, their country and the whole eight days of wondrous swimming.

This was supposed to be the "Swim Wars," Australia against the U.S., the new wave in a country where being on the national swim team means more to a small Australian boy than being a major league baseball player or pro basketball or football player does to an American boy. Little Australian girls grow up wanting their hair to turn blond not from a bottle but from chlorinated water.

But there were no "Swim Wars."

To be blunt, the Americans kicked butt.

Mark Spitz, who won seven Olympic gold swimming medals himself at the 1972 Munich Games, had sounded the only mean-spirited note of this competition when he was quoted as saying the U.S. women probably wouldn't win any gold medals.

Seven, Mark.

That's how many gold medals the U.S. women won.

The most memorable moment so far in Sydney was the wide-eyed, triple-take wonderment of Misty Hyman after she had upset Susie O'Neill--"Madame Butterfly," O'Neill is called--in the 200-meter butterfly.

While Hyman wept, her teammate, 17-year-old Kaitlin Sandeno of Lake Forest, swam faster than she had in the race to congratulate Hyman. Sandeno was as happy for Hyman's gold as Hyman was.

Altogether, the U.S. men and women combined for 33 swimming medals--14 gold, eight silver, 11 bronze--the most by the U.S. in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1976. Even more than in Atlanta, when the home crowd was supposed to be the big help.

"When you're faced with a worthy opponent, it forces you to step [up]," Gary Hall Jr. said. "We were able to use the threat of being dethroned as the best swimming nation as a motive to step it up. Something just clicked. We had great team leaders with guys like Lenny [Krayzelburg] and Tom Dolan. You see their enthusiasm rub off on the rest of the team."

Even the last day of swimming, which was supposed to be an Australian celebration, ended with two tired-sounding Aussies--Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins--congratulating the Americans. Hackett and Perkins finished first and second in the men's 1,500 freestyle.

Yes, the Australians still owned the mile, but Chris Thompson earned bronze, the first U.S. medal in the event since 1984.

The noise was substantial at the Aquatic Center for the big 1,500, but the roof stayed on, no one sang "Waltzing Matilda," and it was two U.S. relay teams that set the final two world records.

First the U.S. women demolished a standard in the 400 medley relay. B.J. Bedford, Megan Quann, Jenny Thompson and Torres demanded cheers from the 18,000 swimming fans wearing Oz green and gold. The time of 3:58.30 demolished the 1994 record of 4:01.67.

Bedford, her hair dyed red, white and blue, couldn't stop crying. Quann, 16, and the winner of the 100-meter breaststroke, couldn't stop smiling.

Quann is the future for the U.S. So is wonderfully pleasant, monstrously talented 17-year-old Aaron Peirsol of Irvine, second to Krayzelburg in the 200 backstroke and itching to break the world records Krayzelburg has in the 100 and 200 back.

But the future will be hard-pressed to beat the present.

For Australia's love of swimming made this the best swim meet ever.

U.S. team director Dennis Pursley demanded the presence of some Australian media Saturday afternoon.

Was he going to embarrass the U.S.? Was he going to make a scene about bold Australian predictions of overtaking U.S. swimming?

No. Pursley wanted to praise.

"These Olympic Games have been, for our sport, unlike anything we've ever experienced before," Pursley said. "It has been outstanding. The environment around this pool has allowed the performances we've seen over the last eight days. This standard of excellence is going to be hard to equal in the future."

That has been the beauty of swimming Olympic-style in Sydney: the excellence of the performances.

It's hard to pick a single star for the U.S.

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