At the beginning, before he stripped off his warmups and dipped
one hand into the pale blue water of the pool at the Georgia
Tech Aquatic Center last night, Jeff Rouse located his family
and friends and locked his eyes with them. Four years had passed
since that July night in Barcelona when Rouse, the best
100-meter backstroker in the world, was upset by Mark Tewksbury,
a Canadian who swam the race of his life and stole the gold. A
reputation grew from that race, the way athletic reputations
can. "People said Jeff couldn't win the big race," said U.S.
teammate Tripp Schwenk.
Rouse was favored again last night, and so he found strength in
the familiar faces that were watching him from above the pool
deck. "I smiled when I saw them," he said later, "because I knew
they would love and support me no matter what happened." The
moment, so close to the start of his race, gave him peace.
Because as Schwenk said, "This was a big race."
Olympic events are often made into once-in-a-lifetime epics,
opportunities that once lost can never be recaptured. However,
the lesson delivered last night was that the Games can be more
generous with second chances than they are with first ones. The
U.S. swim team won three more gold medals--running its totals in
these Games to seven gold and 17 overall--and each of them was a
small piece of redemption.
First there was Rouse. Then there was Amy Van Dyken, who won the
women's 100 butterfly three days after finishing fourth in the
100 freestyle, racked with cramps and hyperventilating. Finally
there was Gary Hall Jr., the brilliant and iconoclastic sprinter
who one night after finishing second to Aleksandr Popov of
Russia in the 100 freestyle, swam the fastest 100 split in
history, anchoring the U.S. men's 4x100 freestyle relay to a
gold medal in an Olympic record time of 3:15.41.
July 23, 1996
The message that summarizes all three accomplishments comes from
Rouse, a U.S. men's team captain and at 26 the third-oldest
member of the squad. His loss to Tewksbury was devastating, one
of the biggest upsets at the '92 Games. He reversed that defeat
with emphasis, hitting the wall nearly a body length in front of
Roldolfo Falcon Cabrera of Cuba. Rouse's time of 54.10 was only
.24 of a second off his world record. And in the mad aftermath
of the race, Rouse found himself talking to none other than
Tewksbury, who is working for the Canadian Broadcasting
"I actually thanked him," said Rouse. "I wouldn't have done this
tonight if it wasn't for him. In '92 Mark had a great swim. I
just got beat. I've learned so much in the last four years. You
take any successful person--people in business, athletes,
doctors--they don't get to where they are without failing once."
It would be wrong to say that Van Dyken failed in her earlier
race, but surely she understood what Rouse was feeling. She got
her first chance at redemption on Monday night, when she swam on
the gold-medal-winning 4x100 freestyle relay. But there was
still a hole in her resume from these Games. Her disappointing
finish in the 100 free had come after she talked of fighting the
Chinese women with prerace intimidation. But while teammate
Angel Martino won a bronze in that race, Van Dyken collapsed
with severe cramps. "In the 100 free I was very nervous," she
said last night. "This is like the Super Bowl, and I've just
been really overanxious."
She excelled last night in the tightest races of the swimming
finals to date, touching in 59.13, .01 in front of Liu Limin of
China. "I had no idea where I was in the race," Van Dyken said.
She wheeled from the touch pad at the end of her lane, trained
her eyes on the huge scoreboard at the opposite end of the pool
and then opened her mouth in shock and celebration. Martino was
third, just .10 behind Van Dyken in winning her second
individual bronze to go with one relay gold.
The single most arresting moment of the night belonged to Hall,
who had been gracious in losing to Popov, now a two-time gold
medalist in the 100 free. But as the outcome of the race seeped
into Hall's psyche--he lost by only .07--it nagged at him. "I
was a little disappointed," Hall said. "I thought I could have
done better. I woke up this morning and I thought about the
relay. This was my chance to redeem myself."
There would be no head-to-head rematch with Popov, who swims the
second leg. But on his leg Popov pushed Russia into the lead
with a searing 47.88 split (the world record for the open 100 is
Popov's 48.21). After legs by Jon Olsen, Josh Davis and Bradley
Schumacher, the U.S. was in third place, trailing first-place
Russia by .62. But Hall roared into the lead in less than 20
meters and smoked Russian anchor Vladimir Pyshnenko. His 47.45
time shattered the previous mark for a freestyle relay split of
47.66, set by Matt Biondi in 1985. Next up for Hall is a rematch
tomorrow night with Popov in the 50 free.
There was one other U.S. gold medal hopeful last night,
14-year-old breaststroker Amanda Beard. On Sunday she had won a
silver medal in the 100 breast, closing on and nearly touching
ahead of Penelope Heyns of South Africa. Last night's 200
breaststroke was a copy of that race as Beard made up almost a
full body length in the final 50 meters. She lost by .30. "I'd
like it if Amanda and I could go out and party together," Heyns,
21, said last night as the two sat at a postrace press
conference. "But my feeling is you're too young."
Two silvers is a heavy haul for such a youngster, but Beard is
chasing more. "She's given me a goal," she said. "Now I'll go
And if Beard was watching closely last night, she knows that
there can be another race, even another Olympics.