You understand Summer Sanders's relief. You sit in the sunshine for six days and watch the wet melodramas at the Bernat Picornell swimming pool, and you know why she looks as if she has escaped from a maximum-security dungeon located somewhere in the recesses of the Olympic Village. You know that her joy goes beyond the simple fact she has a gold medal hanging from her neck for having won the 200-meter butterfly.
"What are you going to do now?" a reporter asks the 19-year-old Sanders.
"I just want to sit down and relax," she says. "I want to enjoy the feeling that nobody expects me to do anything great tomorrow."
You understand. You look at the margin of her victory. She finished .34 of a second in front of Wang Xiaohong of China—a grasp, a touch, maybe the length of a hand—and you think of all the other grasps and touches and 100ths-of-a-second decisions you have seen at the Barcelona Games. How close are these races? How narrow is the line between making everyone happy and being deemed an Olympic bust?
You watch swimmers trying to succeed while wearing the bulky overcoats of high expectations. How do these people move? How do they function? You have the list of previous times and the predicted finishes all printed on glossy paper. Who can predict anything in this sport, in this meet? Hundredths of a second. What little flaw, what change, can make the difference? How long is a hundredth of a second? A blink? The beginning of an idea?
"I didn't leave my room very much," says Mike Barrowman of the U.S., the 200-meter breaststroke winner, after his world-record swim of 2:10.16. "At the Olympic Village you tend to walk around a lot. I didn't want to be walking, tiring myself out. I think that's the problem with a lot of athletes. They get here and they have to walk around. They're tired out by the time they compete."
You understand. Everything counts. Every little thing. Who wouldn't want to be perfect in an Olympic race?
You mark down the results. You mention the nine world and 21 Olympic records that have been set in the 31 swimming events. You hook onto the trends. You say that the U.S. is the grand winner with 11 gold, nine silver and seven bronze medals; the Unified Team is second at six, three and one. You note that some people say this is great for the Americans, and other people say the U.S. total is too low. The U.S. women's coach, Mark Schubert, mentions that his team lost some close ones, but then again it also won some close ones. In fact, almost all of the races were close.
"I wasn't used to someone swimming next to me," says America's Crissy Ahmann-Leighton of her close one, a second place to Qian Hong of China in the 100 butterfly. "In most of my races, I've been out there alone. When I saw someone come up next to me, I thought, There she is. I started doing things differently. I wish I'd been wearing blinders. Bad move on my part."
A hesitation. A hiccup. Isn't that all it takes to change gold to silver? The difference in Ahmann-Leighton's race was .12. She was ahead. Then she was not. Gold to silver.
You marvel at the success of two Hungarians, Tamàs Darnyi, a double gold medal winner, and Krisztina Egerszegi, a triple gold medalist, the most impressive swimmers in the competition. Egerszegi overwhelms the field in the women's 100 (1:00.68) and 200 (2:07.06) backstroke, setting Olympic records in both events. She also wins the 400 individual medley. Darnyi, who hasn't lost an IM race in eight years, rolls in the men's 200 IM and sets an Olympic record in the 400 IM with a time of 4:14.23. How do they keep their composure, do exactly what they were supposed to do? Do they have the same pressures as the Americans have?
You watch swimmers come out of nowhere, men from the Unified Team and women from China. Who are these people? Your little charts don't show their names. Here is Aleksandr Popov of Russia beating America's Matt Biondi to win both the 100 freestyle and the 50 freestyle. There is Yevgeny Sadovyi of Russia setting an Olympic record of 1:46.70 in the men's 200 free and then swimming the 400 free in a world-record time of 3:45.
The Soviet Union had never done much in swimming—four golds since 1956, excluding the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Games. Has swimming become a major sport in the Commonwealth of Independent States? How have these people succeeded amidst the upheaval in their land? "Ah, there is no time to have a history lesson," Popov says in a press conference. "To explain, I would have to start back in 1917."
The Chinese women are fast-arriving mysteries, too. They beat some of the surest shots on the U.S. roster. Qian beats Ahmann-Leighton. Zhuang Yong beats world-record holder Jenny Thompson in the 100 free. Lin Li beats Sanders in the 200 IM with a world-record time of 2:11.65. Yang Wenyi beats Thompson and Angel Martino in the 50-meter freestyle in 24.79, another world record.
You listen to the mumblings about how China has imported East German coaches and their steroid secrets. You listen to the denials by the Chinese athletes and coaches. Who to believe?
"Where are the men?" an American swimming authority asks.
"Where are the men?" the authority repeats. "It's the same as the East Germans. Steroids help women swimmers most. The East Germans produced all those women but only one male champion. If the Chinese are legitimate, then where are the men?"
That sounds reasonable. Where are the men? You ask the question, but you don't get an answer. You also ask how these people—the Russian men and the Chinese women—arrived in Barcelona with such little fanfare.
"Our Olympic trials are very competitive," says U.S. freestyler Janet Evans. "You have to swim your best times just to make the team. Our times are out there for everyone to see. In a lot of countries, the trials are not very competitive. That is how swimmers you've never heard of can come here without fast times."
You are as intrigued by Evans's performances. No longer the 17-year-old water sprite of Seoul, where she got three gold medals, she is now a young woman. She cannot swim as fast as she once did. Simple fact. At these Games she competes in only two events, the 400 and 800 freestyles, the longer swims. She loses the 400 to Dagmar Hase of Germany, faltering in the final 50-meter leg after having led all the way. It is the first time in six years Evans loses a 400.
She talks in the press conference with a wavering voice and tears in her eyes. Two nights later she returns to the pool and plows though the 800, with no one close, to win the gold. "I've swum for my country, I've swum for my coaches and my schools and my teams," she says. "I decided this time I was going to swim for me. I just wanted to be up there on that winner's stand one more time. Just to see what it feels like."
Lovely. She later tells Schubert that this medal means more to her than all the other medals she has won. Lovely.
You watch the struggles of Biondi, Evans's male counterpart. He is 26, and the Russian kid, the 20-year-old Popov, has arrived in a hurry. What can Biondi do? Fifth in the 100 free. Second in the 50. But he quietly picks up a record-tying 11th medal—he got one in Los Angeles and seven in Seoul—when he swims with the qualifying team for the 4 x 100 medley relay. Not on the big team? Someone named Jon Olsen replaces him for the medley relay final, in which the U.S. strikes gold. Taken out of the final. Just like that.
You watch the professionalism and determination of Barrowman and Melvin Stewart, who wins the 200 butterfly. They are working the same story: favorites who were upset in Seoul returning to finish the job four years later. Both were back in the water within a week of their '88 defeats. How much work have they done for their second chances? Four years. Neither of them blinks. Barrowman sets his world record in the 200 breaststroke. Stewart establishes an Olympic mark at 1:56.26. They have swum their races a billion times in their heads.
"I'm giving my medal to Mr. Baxter," says Stewart, an effusive guy, in a tribute to George Baxter, a 76-year-old retired businessman from West Palm Beach who paid Stewart's way through prep school and has been a mentor to him. "When I finished fifth in Seoul, everyone was nice to me. All my coaches, friends. They patted me on the back and said I'd done a good job. Mr. Baxter said, 'This is fuel for the fire.' He was the one who knew. I knew exactly what he meant. I started working again."
"Tonight, my coach is going to wear my medal to bed," Barrowman says. "We've always had a thing—whenever I finished second or third, he'd make me wear the medal to bed to remember where I finished and to think about how I could have been better. Tonight, he wears this medal to bed."
You find Barrowman's coach, Jozsef Nagy. Is he going to wear the medal? Oh, yes, no problem. He will be proud. Is this a little different from Seoul? Nagy says, "All the world."
Your favorite race is the women's 4 x 100 medley relay. The U.S. team is filled with frustration, if not disappointment. Three members have finished with silvers in races they had been predicted to win: Thompson in the 100 free, Anita Nail in the 100 breast and Ahmann-Leighton in the 100 fly. The fourth member of the team is backstroker Lea Loveless. Since the start of training camp on July 13, Schubert has emphasized winning the medley relay. He started by putting mysterious signs on the locker room walls in their facility in Narbonne, France. What were these numbers? They were the splits of the world-record-setting East German medley relay team of 1984. Then he put up numbers his team would have to swim to break the record.
The race is perfection. The team's frustration seems to make the water bubble. The U.S. men and women win four of the five relays in Barcelona, but this one is the most memorable. There is the feeling that Thompson, Nail and Ahmann-Leighton used it as a second chance to show what they can do. The time is 4:02.54, 1.15 faster than the East Germans' record. "I read a quote from Jenny that made sense," Ahmann-Leighton says. "She talked about taking a punch and coming back, that Americans are good at climbing off the floor and getting back into the fight. I think that was what we did."
You watch Sanders come back on the last day of swimming for the gold, after having worked from a bronze on the first day of competition to a silver in the middle of the week. Now she has lived up to all those high expectations, all those magazine features and TV profiles, to grab gold at the end. You celebrate with the Spanish at the victory of Martin Lopez-Zubero, an import from Jacksonville, Fla., in the 200 backstroke in 1:58.47, an Olympic record. He never has lived in Spain and is more comfortable speaking English than Spanish, but what the heck. Good for Spain. His winning margin is .40. Is home court worth .40? His gold medal also earns him a $1 million reward from the Spanish government, the money to become available to him when he turns 50 in 2019. Forty hundredths of a second. For a million dollars.
What else? You watch Mark Tewksbury of Canada outkick Jeff Rouse and David Berkoff of the U.S. in the 100 backstroke to win in 53.98, an Olympic record. You watch Kieren Perkins of Australia beat his longtime rival, J‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árg Hoffman of Germany in the 1,500-meter free. In that race Perkins shatters his own world record of 14:48.40 by 4.92. You listen to the anthems of nine countries and see swimmers from another nine countries earn silver and bronze medals. You notice that 30 of the 40 U.S. swimmers take home medals of some kind. You record the statistics and the names. You try to make sense of it all.
You find yourself, near the end of the competition, in a small area outside the pool. Ron Karnaugh, 26, of Maplewood, N.J., whose father, Peter, died of a heart attack at the opening ceremonies, is giving a press conference. He has swum his race, the 200 IM, and has finished sixth. He is telling his tale quietly, seated at a table underneath a Coca-Cola beach umbrella. Maybe 50 writers and broadcasters are listening to his words.
It could have been a macabre scene, pushing and shoving and dumb questions, but it is not. There is a dignity to it all. Karnaugh is solemn and strong. The questions are respectful. To one side stands his coach, Terry Stoddard. He is answering questions, also quietly. One of them is about how people have treated Karnaugh in the six days since his father's death. The coach mentions a number of nice things that have happened, one of which is how the U.S. Olympic Committee moved Karnaugh out of the athletes' village and into the same luxury hotel where the Dream Team is staying.
"You come over here, and it's the Olympics," says Stoddard. "You say it's the field of battle, and you're here for a gold medal. You're with people who eat sport, drink sport, make a living from sport. Then something like this happens, and all these people, the whole Olympic Village, the whole community, together, are asking to help. Everyone. You talk about the Olympic spirit, well, this is more than you ever dreamt was possible. This is the way life should be."
You understand this, too.