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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

Mr. Bold, Mr. Gold

It's a Nearly Impossible Task to Push Hall Out of Spotlight

August 21, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — The gold medalist was telling stories, cracking jokes, selling swimming when a nervous publicity person suddenly appeared above his shoulder.

Could he please leave the room?

The dais belonged to another gold medalist.

"Ohhh, Michael Phelps is next," said Gary Hall Jr., raising his eyebrows and his voice as he walked out the door. "Can't keep Michael Phelps waiting."

OK, so somebody had to say it, the message finally and appropriately delivered Friday by America's big-mouthed sass.

These Olympics are about more than one swimmer. This U.S. team has room for more than one personality.

That the U.S. Olympic Committee has ordered its athletes here to make nice does not mean they have to make meek, or make quiet, or make do.

"Defiance," Hall said with a grin. "It's fun."

It's also very American, which Hall reminded us Friday in 22 seconds worth of I-told-you-so.

Bumped off relay teams he had anchored for three gold medals in past Olympics, the oldest guy in the pool at one month shy of 30, Hall showed up anyway and won his second consecutive 50-meter freestyle crown.

After which he flexed his muscles and bowed to the crowd and laughed and, goodness, if that's an ugly American, then we all should be one.

"This was my most emotional race," Hall said with a little smile. "I don't know why. I haven't figured it out yet."

Here's a hint:

He won when his coaches surely thought he would lose.

He won when his teammates had thought he had lost it.

He won from an outside lane, with an outside chance, as the ultimate outsider.

"Maybe some people hate him," said runner-up Duje Draganja, Hall's training partner from Croatia. "But I love him. I love him for what he is."

What he has been is a swimmer who appears in only a handful of meets between Olympics and spends as much time shaking hands and throwing imaginary punches and playing the crowd as he does sucking the chlorine.

"It's hard to take me seriously sometimes," Hall said. "But you can't deny it gets results. It's OK to have fun."

By having fun Friday, he was once again a thorn in the side of a U.S. swimming body that has spent the entire week dressed in Michael Phelps.

Certainly, Phelps is a nice guy and has handled this week well, even if his dropping out of the medley relay today is a bit like Carl Lewis' refusing to take one more jump.

But Phelps' success should not have come at the expense of other swimmers, which is what happened to Hall on Sunday when he was left off the 400 freestyle relay team in favor of Phelps, who had not swum the proper qualifying races.

Then, when Ian Crocker showed up ill, team officials still didn't call Hall, which probably cost the U.S. a gold medal.

Hall disappeared, and many thought his meet had ended.

"I didn't want to come across as bitter," Hall said Friday. "But I was bitter. I very much wanted to be part of the relay team, I've been part of it for so long."

So what did he do? What does every American tourist do here when they suddenly have a free day?

Hall hit the Greek isles, traveling to Hydra for a day to collect his thoughts, returning just before curfew.

"I wasn't supposed to do that, but I can talk about it now," he said.

He then showed up for the finals Friday while breaking another team rule -- he was wearing his trademark, flag-covered Everlast boxing shorts and robe.

Who knows, maybe the Greek god Apollo's last name was Creed.

"I'll probably get in a lot of trouble for not wearing a team uniform," Hall said. "But it's my lucky robe. If you believe in that stuff, maybe they'll make an exception."

The problem is, they really don't believe in Hall, which is why he also is not on the 400 medley relay team today.

"Our relay is pretty well set," said Eddie Reese, the U.S. coach, who added that Hall was simply not fast enough during the preliminaries to warrant placement on the 400 freestyle relay team.

"There is no protocol," he said.

Yet, Hall is known for swimming better in the finals. And while Reese allowed Phelps to make the decision to give up his spot in today's medley relay, he shunned Hall without discussion.

"They told me I couldn't do well in 1996 because I was too immature," Hall said. "Then in 2000, it was because I had diabetes. Then they said this year I was too old."

Which, of course, means only one thing.

Beijing, 2008, an old swimmer will be showing up for no other reason than to keep Michael Phelps waiting.

"Why not?" Gary Hall Jr. said, laughing again as we asked ourselves the same question.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For more Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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