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Monday, September 25
Home-pool advantage wasn't enough for Australia

SYDNEY, Australia -- In retrospect, the concern was genuine enough. The U.S. swim team went through its national qualifying this summer with nary a world record falling. The Australians, meanwhile, had looked over the entire Sydney Olympics schedule and decided that the swim venue was the place where they'd leave their legacy.

And, look, it made sense. You don't have to spend much time here to understand the deep affection Aussies hold for swimming, and the elevated regard in which they hold their swim champions. When I mentioned this to a Sydneysider the other day, he regarded me with an expression that I can only describe as benign tolerance and replied, "Most of the country lives within a drive of the beach. Makes sense, mate, doesn't it?"

Indeed it does. And perhaps that makes it a tad more surprising that, despite the Aussies' best efforts and one of the all-time great first days by the home team in the pool, the 2000 Olympics will be remembered as among the most dominant performances ever -- by the Americans.

The medals tally in swimming is final, and even when you hold the totals in your hand they're staggering. With one ultimate smashing of the guitars, victories in both the men's and women's 4x100 medley relays on Saturday, the U.S. hiked itself to 33 swim medals compared to 18 for Australia.

Not only that, but this was quality across the board. Americans snapped up 14 of the 33 gold medals that were awarded, a feat they managed despite having only one person, backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, win two individual golds. Of the six relay races that went off, the U.S. nailed down four.

And they did all this despite really having a single dominating force. These Olympics, in fact, will be remembered individually for two Dutch swimmers, Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge De Bruijn, who just crushed the field in their events (and, alas, spawned the usual round of drug rumors by drastically lowering their times). The U.S. didn't have a single such supernova, but, happily, a rather vast constellation of smaller stars.

"I was confident that we would come in here and perform well," said Krayzelburg, the Ukranian-born, L.A.-bred sensation who came home first in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke finals. "I have really enjoyed this team.

"We have a great group of people; we support each other and spend a lot of time together. And I think what has helped us tremendously is that leading up to the Olympics, we stayed loose."

Not that you could tell it from the atmosphere around the Aquatic Centre, where more than 17,000 largely pro-Aussie fans jammed in every night in hopes of watching Australia bring home the hardware. And when, on the first big evening of competition, the 17-year-old Thorpe won the 400 freestyle and then chased down Gary Hall Jr. over the final 20 meters to help his country take the 4x100 free relay, you had the feeling that something special was about to happen.

And so it was, sort of. Undaunted by that start, the U.S. delivered what now can be marked as one of its finest team performances ever. There's no Spitz or Biondi or Evans here -- but on the other hand, there was Jenny Thompson, who walked away with three relay-team gold medals and an individual bronze. There was Gary Hall Jr., who wound up with two golds, a silver and a bronze.

And there were the great surprises: Misty Hyman coming out of nowhere to stun Aussie sweetheart Susie O'Neill in the 200-meter butterfly; Dara Torres coming back from a seven-year retirement to pocket four fresh medals; Anthony Ervin jumping up to share the gold medal with Hall in the 50 freestyle final.

When Hall and Ervin touched the wall at the same time the other night, the whole package seemed to fall into place. It was the U.S. weeklong performance in a nutshell: The pair overshadowed such sprint luminaries as Alexander Popov and van den Hoogenband; both men managed to save their best work for the final; and their sense of timing was absolutely epic.

"I see this as just a great triumph for the U.S. in swimming," said Hall. "It just shows everybody back home in the U.S. that we're still the best."

Not that anyone needed convincing, in America or otherwise. In the weeks leading up to these Games, while people all around him began concocting elaborate scenarios of historic Australian medal counts, Aussie swim coach Don Talbot laid down the truth: "The rest of the world is still trying to catch the U.S."

Talbot was right then. He's right now. In the time between, the American swimmers went out and made it so.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, which has a Web site at


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