Pool Sharks

SWIMMING: The Irish woman was a surprise, the American a record breaker. Both smelled gold in the water.

THEY ARE AN UNLIKELY PAIR OF POOL SHARKS. ONE, an asthmatic who never swims with more than two thirds of her lung capacity. The other, an international sensation at 26, an age when most world-class swimmers have left the pool. Amy Van Dyken of the United States swims for health, for glory and to help exorcise the demons of an adolescence when she was too tall, too awkward, too nerdy. Michelle Smith of Ireland went abroad for college, for training and for love, and now finds herself a national hero. Together the two women won seven gold medals last week in the fast waters at Georgia Tech, the most exciting Olympic combo since Mark Spitz and his ego in Munich.

Smith's performance was the stunning surprise. And in today's swimming world, there is no such thing as a pleasant one. Going into the Games, Smith was ranked 41st in the world in the 400-meter individual medley. Last week she cut 13 seconds off her best '96 time, swum just last month, to win a gold medal. Cause for celebration? In Dublin, yes. In Atlanta, suspicious U.S. officials stopped just a stroke short of accusing her of taking performance-enhancing drugs. "She's ridiculous," says John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association. "Everything, every bit of circumstantial evidence [of drugs] is there."

Not quite. Smith does not look like the Brnnhildes who were the drug-driven East German swimming machine in the '70s and '80s. Other than possessing a powerful, muscular build, Smith does not have any of the obvious signs of steroid use such as body acne, facial hair or a husky voice. Yet rarely do dramatic improvements come in world-class swimming at her age. "We've never seen anybody go from 24 to 26 the way she has," Leonard says. Smith credits a power-lifting and sprinting regimen that she began three years ago with Dutch discus and shot-put star Erik de Bruin. But he's part of the problem. Track officials banned de Bruin from their sport in 1993 because he tested positive for using steroids. Unfazed, Smith says she moved to the Netherlands, followed his training guidelines and, along the way, fell in love. They married two months ago.

Thus far, she's guilty only of association. Like every other medalist, she has given a urine sample after each race. The drug tests have so far been negative and the last results are due early this week. But it's randomly scheduled tests out of competition that are most effective in ferreting out the dopers. And she has passed those, too. "I'm probably the most tested Irish athlete," says Smith, who was a communications major at the University of Houston. "If I was taking drugs, then surely I should be swimming faster." Smith dismisses all suspicions as sour grapes. "When somebody else is successful and your own swimmers aren't quite as successful, it's very easy to point an accusing finger." In all, she won three gold medals in individual events, recalling the performance of American legend Janet Evans, who won three golds in Seoul. (Last week in Atlanta, Evans failed in her bid to win another Olympic medal.)

Expectations had been low for the U.S. team. Only Tom Dolan, the 400-meter individual-medley recordholder, and Jeff Rouse, the 100-meter backstroker, were favored to win gold medals. And both did. But otherwise, the Games started slowly for American swimmers. Van Dyken finished her first race--out of the money in the 100-meter freestyle--flat on her back at poolside, suffering from a body-length muscle cramp. The kinks were quickly worked out, however, and the U.S. team won more swimming medals--including 13 golds--than any other country. "For underdogs, we have quite a big bite," says Van Dyken, who won the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly and added two more golds in relays. That's the most gold medals any American woman has won at an Olympics.

Afterward, the bubbly, six-foot Colorado native recalled how as a youngster she couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded. In high school, her teammates refused to swim relays with her because she was too slow. "Those girls who gave me such a hard time, I want to thank you," she said cheerfully. "Here I am! This is a victory for all the nerds out there."

All the sprints were closely contested. None more so than the two matches between American Gary Hall Jr. and the "Russian Rocket," Aleksandr Popov. Hall is a free spirit, a nonconforming, guitar-playing Olympian who scorns the drudgery of the pool. He's as apt to work out on the basketball court as in the lap lane. Popov is a training machine, having moved to Australia to work with his demanding coach. In their matches, Hall chased Popov stroke for stroke in both the 50 and the 100, losing twice by a sliver of a second. Popov's advice: "Come train with me." (As a member of two relays, Hall did win the gold that had eluded his father, three-time Olympian Gary Hall Sr.)

The Chinese, meanwhile, tallied just one gold--the same as unlikely swimming contender Costa Rica. But the Chinese were expected to do much better--and to be controversial. Since 1990, 19 of their women have tested positive for illicit drug use. Their relatively poor performance in Atlanta may be an ironic tribute to a program that has been cleansed. Chinese officials blamed their young team's inexperience and "nerves," since "novices" were called upon to replace established stars suspended for drug use.

But Atlanta wasn't interested in failure; it was captivated by triumph. Michelle Smith was greeted by no less a swim fan than Bill Clinton, who stopped by for a photo op with her. "I admire you for the way you've handled all the crap," the president told Smith, himself a medalist in competitive crap-handling. And the wonderful news for Amy Van Dyken is that she'll never have to handle any ever again. With a fat contract from Speedo and four bands of gold around her neck, Van Dyken is a permanent member of the popular crowd. That's a nice place to be, especially when you've earned it.