U.s. Swimmers Didn't Take A Back Seat Australia Was Expected To Dominate In The Pool At This Olympics. The Americans Proved That Wrong.

Posted: September 24, 2000

SYDNEY — Australian swimmer Kieren Perkins entered the interview room clutching a red-gloved, boxing kangaroo, his country's sporting mascot. He placed it carefully on the podium and took a seat. Slowly, like a stunned fighter, the kangaroo sagged to its knees and tumbled over.

It was a fitting symbol for the just-completed Olympic swimming competition. The Australians were supposed to make a fight of it. Instead, the surprisingly deep Americans KO'd them.

U.S. teams set world records in yesterday's final two events, drubbing the Aussies in the men's and women's 400-meter medley relays. Americans finished with a 33-18 overall medals advantage, 14-5 in golds.

Australia and America, the Land Down Under and the Land Over the Top, have much in common: Skyscrapers, language, and a passion for sports.

But last night, as the sun drifted low in the sky over the Aquatic Center, a sizable gap - a chlorine canyon - still existed between the world's two top swimming nations.

"We're a nation of 19 million and the U.S. has something like 260 million," said Australian Grant Hackett, who took a gold in the event his countrymen love best, the 1,500 meters. "But we're still highly competitive, and I think that with people like Ian Thorpe coming along we're only going to get better."

The 14 victories were the Americans' most in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1972. The Aussies hadn't won as many medals since those same Munich Games.

"We sure wouldn't have done as well as we did without a great challenge from the Australian team," said Dennis Pursley, the director of the U.S. team. "Things didn't go as well as they planned, but they came back and fought with class and dignity."

Seeking to explain the U.S. performance, Pursley pointed in several directions. Increased competition, American focus on the Olympics at the expense of world championships, and, perhaps most simply, timing.

"It's a crapshoot," he said. "We just clicked at the right time."

Australia's dominance at last year's Pan-Pacific Games here led many to predict a changing of the guard, particularly on the women's side. The U.S. women had just one swimmer with a world-best time this year - Brooke Bennett in the 800.

"Yeah, we're terrible," joked Jenny Thompson, who took her eighth relay gold medal and her 10th medal overall in her final Olympic race, the 400 individual medley.

"There was a lot of talk a ways back that the Australians were the reigning women's team," she said, "and on paper it looked that way. We only had one girl with a world-best time this year. So it looked like we were going to win one gold medal. But this team had a lot of heart and spirit."

The U.S. women will go home with seven gold medals - in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays, the 400 medley relay, Megan Quann in the 100-meter breaststroke and Misty Hyman in the 200-meter butterfly, and Bennett in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle.

It was Hyman's stunning upset of Australia's "Madame Butterfly," Susie O'Neill, that got the ball rolling, said Lenny Krayzelburg, who won gold in the men's 100- and 200-meter backstroke.

"That was awesome," he said. "I can't find the words to you how inspirational that was for us."

When swimming began with two Aussie golds - including a precedent-shattering victory over the United States in the 800-meter freestyle relay - Australians were ecstatically emboldened. One TV sportscaster brashly asked Gary Hall, who had predicted the U.S. 800 team would "smash Australia like guitars," "What do you think of our guitars now, Gary?"

Yesterday, Hackett and Perkins finished 1-2 in the 1,500 with American Chris Thompson taking third. The Aussies, for some reason, love the 1,500.

"Probably because we always win it," said O'Neill.

It was one of the few events in which Australia took multiple medals.

"Where the Americans really do well is not so much with the golds but with the other medals," said Perkins. "We've got a lot of great stars in Australia, but their depth is incredible. Every time there was a minor medal at stake, boom, there were the Americans."

They got a pair of bronzes yesterday, Dara Torres in the 50 and Thompson in the 1,500. Torres also swam the anchor freestyle leg in the relay. Like her longtime rival Thompson, it was her last Olympic swim, and she broke down.

"I'm happy," she sobbed, "just a little bummed that it's over."

Inge de Bruijn won the 50 and generated her typical controversies. American Amy Van Dyken, like many others, suggested that the suddenly dominant Dutch swimmer may have had some chemical assistance, speculation de Bruijn repeatedly has denied. And silver-medalist Therese Alshammar of Sweden complained, to no avail, that de Bruijn had jumped the gun at the start.

The U.S. women's relay team - B.J. Bedford, backstroke; Quann, breaststroke; Thompson, butterfly, and Torres, freestyle - really pulled away on Quann's leg. They became the first 400 medley relay team in history to break 4 minutes, their time of 3:58.30 shattering China's six-year-old mark by more than three seconds.

The men - Krayzelburg, Ed Moses, Ian Crocker and anchor Hall - were never threatened. Their record-setting time of 3:33.73 broke the mark the United States set in Atlanta by better than a second. Moses' 59.84 was the quickest second leg ever.

In both events, the Australians were second.

"Here in Australia all the young kids want to get on the Australian swim team," said Hackett. "The Australian swim team is the big thing. I know it's not like that in the States. They want to play baseball or what have you. So I think we are only going to get better."

And in the future they might have company in challenging the United States. The Netherlands, after all, took five golds here between de Bruijn and sprinter Pieter van den Hoogenband.

It's that competition, said Hall, that keeps the U.S. swimmers fresh.

"The U.S. was so dominant in swimming before," Hall said. "Now that there are so many new competitors out there, it forces us to improve. It's either get better or get beat."

Frank Fitzpatrick's e-mail address is ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

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