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ATHENS 2004

U.S. Team Is a Taint Remover

Women break the world record in the 800 freestyle relay, eliminating the mark set by East Germany in 1987. Hansen gets a bronze in the 200 breaststroke.

August 19, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Five days into an Olympic swimming competition and there are two obvious conclusions for the United States:

* Michael Phelps will be hearing the name Mark Spitz for the next four years, leading up to the Beijing Olympics.

* We've become a nation of pretty good relay swimmers.

Relay prowess was on fairly astonishing display Wednesday in the women's 800-meter freestyle event as the United States erased one questionable, and old, world record from the books.

Natalie Coughlin, Carly Piper, Dana Vollmer and anchor Kaitlin Sandeno won the gold in 7 minutes 53.42 seconds and the rewrite served as something of a cleansing agent.

Need a hint about the former holders?

The East Germans had swum that relay in 7:55.47 at a meet in Strasbourg, France, in 1987, the same state-sponsored structure that produced one drug-aided record and Olympic medal after another in the 1970s and '80s.

The continued presence of the East German record was seen by some as an affront.

"It burned people a lot," said U.S. women's Coach Mark Schubert. "We all know the reason why. We're very proud to have the record back."

The tainted record was on the minds of officials at the meet too, as Sandeno learned.

"One of the officials at drug testing was telling me that was an East German record and the Germans got the record," said Sandeno, of Lake Forest.

"We're as clean as can be. It's amazing. I'm still trying to find words for it. I don't think it's completely sunken in that I have a gold medal, a world record. Now I have a color of each for the collection."

Sandeno didn't have much time to recover after getting out-touched for a medal in the 200 butterfly, but the 21-year-old brought home the relay with a split of 1:58.17. Coughlin had done the heavy lifting, opening a big lead on the first leg. Her split of 1:57.74 would have won the 200 freestyle here.

Coughlin was only seventh after the first 100 meters of her leg. "She said before the race, 'Coach, don't be worried if I'm not ahead at the 100 because I'm going to work the back half,' " Schubert said. "I wasn't worried, much."

Sandeno summed up the night concisely: "Awesome way to finish. World record. Gold medal. Unbelievable."

The Americans beat China by 2.55 seconds, and Germany took the bronze in 7:57.35.

Jodie Henry of Australia also broke a world record, in the women's 100 freestyle, going 53.52 in the semifinals. The previous mark, 53.66, had been held by her countrywoman, Libby Lenton, who failed to make the final.

Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands successfully defended his Olympic title in the 100 freestyle, which was missing two-time Olympic champion Alexander Popov of Russia, American-record holder Jason Lezak and Ian Crocker, all of whom failed to qualify. Ian Thorpe of Australia finished third.

Brendan Hansen gave the U.S. another medal, finishing third in the 200 breaststroke, where Japan's Kosuke Kitajima completed his sweep of the breaststroke events, seemingly unbothered by earlier accusations by the Americans that he used an illegal dolphin kick.

Hansen, who'd been second in the 100 breaststroke, partly blamed media expectations for what some see as individual swimming underachievement here. So far, the American men and women have won 16 medals, six of them gold. Michael Phelps has accounted for five medals, three gold and two bronze, and two of the golds have been won in relays. The only men's individual winner, besides Phelps, was Aaron Peirsol, in the 100 backstroke.

"There's just so much pressure you guys put on us, it's tough for us to compete," said Hansen, who set world records in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at the Olympic trials.

In fact, however, it was men's Coach Eddie Reese who said at trials this was the best men's team since 1976.

Said Schubert: "I think the Olympics is all about eyeball-to-eyeball racing. We had some great performances at the trials, people that were way ahead and very comfortable being there. We have to learn to race when it's close."

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