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Sunday, October 1
U.S. swimmers rule, divers struggle in Sydney

SYDNEY, Australia -- For one week, the Americans ruled the Olympic pool. For the second week, the balance of power shifted.

No one can touch the Chinese divers, who overwhelmed the United States and everyone else with power, elegance, consistency and depth.

Barely making a splash -- which is good for this sport -- the Big Red Machine became the first country to win five diving medals at a single Olympics.

Rubbing it in, the Chinese also captured five silvers.

The U.S. team settled for one measly medal -- a surprise gold by Laura Wilkinson on the women's 10-meter platform. Excluding the 1980 boycott, the Americans carried home their lightest load since 1912.

"Diving is so deep around the world now," U.S. coach Jay Lerew said. "Every year, it gets deeper and deeper."

Ditto for swimming, but the Americans managed to maintain their dominance in the signature sport of the Sydney Games.

The U.S. team will certainly will be remembered as one of the greatest in history, burying the challengers from Australia under a pile of gold, silver and bronze.

"When faced with a worthy opponent, you're forced to get your act together," said Gary Hall Jr., who won two golds, plus silver and bronze. "We were able to reach a level that we might not otherwise have reached."

The U.S. team won 33 medals -- including 14 golds -- to surpass the 13-gold, 26-medal haul from Atlanta.

In fact, it was the most golds in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1972 and equaled the most overall medals since countries were limited to only two entrants per event in 1984.

Aided by high-tech bodysuits, the swimmers tore apart the record book. In all, 15 world marks were set or tied during the eight-day competition.

And, despite plenty of rumors and innuendo, there were no positive doping tests at the pool, which avoided the scourge plaguing other Olympic venues.

No wonder the Sydney International Aquatic Center was considered THE place to be during the first week of the games.

Among those who became household names in America: Lenny Krayzelburg, the Ukrainian emigrant who backstroked to three golds; Brooke Bennett, the new queen of American distance swimming, taking home two more golds; Jenny Thompson, finishing her career with a record eight gold medals; and 33-year-old Dara Torres, winning five medals after a seven-year layoff.

The Aussies settled for 18 medals, five golds and the biggest star in Sydney, Ian Thorpe. The surprising Dutch also made a huge impact with Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband.

But, like the Chinese in diving, the U.S. swimmers had too much depth for the rest of the world.

"The Americans have an ability to pick up the minor placings," Aussie distance star Keiren Perkins said. "We tend to focus on the gold, but when those blokes don't win they pick up second or third."

Many people had predicted an American flop. Even Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals in 1972, worried that the U.S. women wouldn't win any; they wound up with seven.

"We have a lot of history, a lot of heart," Thompson said. "That's a spirit Mark should have known about. He's been a part of that spirit."

The Americans used to have that same feeling in diving. From 1920-76, they hoarded 40 gold medals out of a possible 54.

But the world has caught up. Since 1984, the U.S. team has managed only six golds out of 24 events -- four of them by Greg Louganis, whose brilliance masked the American decline.

Now, there are the familiar complaints about a lack of support.

Mark Ruiz, touted as the next Louganis but no better than sixth in Sydney, has to pay for coaching out of his own pocket. David Pichler, who finished ninth in the platform Saturday, holds down a 30-hour-a-week job so he can afford to compete.

"The Chinese spend all their time in the pool," Pichler grumbled. "We're having to work to make ends meet."

Some coaches rued the lack of direction in the national program. Lerew said the Americans were simply a victims of their own success, spreading the sport to the rest of the world -- then watching it come back to beat them.

There seemed no clear consensus on how to turn things around.

"We got two people in just about every final. That's good," Lerew said. "But we didn't do as good as I wanted. We've got some room to improve."

Americans with gelled hair and noseclips could relate.

Russia swept both events in synchronized swimming, while the U.S. team didn't win a medal at all -- the first time that's happened since "Water Capades" became an Olympic sport in 1984.

"The U.S. had been on top for so long," said Anna Kozlova, a Russian-born swimmer who now competes for America. "I think everyone is very happy to push it down."
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