The scoreboard was a confusing jumble of numbers and names and
results. Turning around, squinting, looking at the wall at the
far end of the pool at the Aquatics Centre last Friday night,
Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin were puzzled. The scoreboard had
too much information. Or maybe not enough. LANE 3. ERVIN. USA.
21.98 (1). LANE 4. HALL JR. USA. 21.98. (1). Something didn't
I won! each American swimmer thought at first glance.
Wait a minute, he won, each thought at second glance.
Wait a minute, each thought, his chest still heaving from the
effort in the 50-meter freestyle final, the crowd of 17,500 still
roaring as everyone began to understand what had just happened.
We both won?
October 1, 2000
In all the hours, all the days, in the months they had trained
together in Phoenix and in Colorado Springs and, finally, in
Sydney, Ervin and Hall had never imagined a dead heat. They had
worked with each other and against each other, half friends and
half adversaries, getting ready to take on the rest of the world
by taking on each other every day. Who ever could have predicted
such a long journey could end at the same time and the same
Two men from the same pool. Two gold medals. Small world. In a
surprising show of U.S. dominance in the eight days of swimming
competition--14 gold medals, eight silver, 11 bronze--this was the
funkiest surprise of them all.
As part of Phoenix Swim Club coach Mike Bottom's Sprint Team
2000, consisting of a dozen sprinters from assorted countries
preparing for the Olympics, Hall and Ervin followed the same
program. They ate the same Platinum Performance vitamins that had
propelled Fusaichi Pegasus to victory in the Kentucky Derby. They
listened to the same sports psychologists. They hit the same
speed bags for coordination. They raced. They raced and raced.
There were no standings kept for these every-day races, no
results that lasted for anything longer than the moment. There
was only the constant friction of competition, the push and shove
against each other.
Hall was the resident talent, 26 years old, 6'6", 216 pounds, a
silver medalist in the 50 and the 100 in Atlanta in 1996. Always
known as a flake, a hey-dude character, with his headphones
sending Grateful Dead music through his ears, he had modified
that act heading into these Olympics. He was trying to reassemble
a swim career that had been broken apart by a mistake (a
three-month suspension in 1998 after testing positive for
marijuana use caused him to be dropped by his sponsor, Speedo)
and misfortune (the onset of diabetes in March '99). He was
injecting himself with insulin up to eight times a day, trying to
maintain a high energy level while monitoring his blood-sugar
levels. He had to take a blood-sugar reading every 30 minutes,
pricking his thumb so often that he figured he could draw blood
simply by squeezing the thumb with his other hand, the blood
squirting out like juice from a grape.
Ervin was the newcomer, a 19-year-old Berkeley sophomore from
Valencia, Calif. He had virtually no international experience and
looked small and slender for a sprinter at 6'3" and 165 pounds.
That did not stop him from being confident. He had won the 50 and
the 100 at this year's NCAA championships, setting a short-course
world record in the 50, and was ready to hit the big stage.
Bottom called him "the best racer I've ever seen." The other
members of Sprint Team 2000 had different words.
"A lot of guys didn't like him at first," Hall says. "I didn't
like him at first. He's very confident. It's a good thing,
self-confidence, because if you don't have confidence in this
sport, you're not going to make it, but he'd push it. The more I
knew him, the more I liked him, but I still wanted to wring his
neck about every other day."
Once Ervin qualified for the U.S. team, the big story about him
concerned race. His father, Jack, is three-fourths
African-American, one-fourth native American. That made the son
37.5% African-American, giving Ervin the distinction of being the
first African-American to swim for the U.S. in the Olympics.
Despite his pale skin color, he was regarded in some breathless
reports as the sport's Jackie Robinson. It was not a role he
wanted. "I want to be a role model," he says, "but I want to be a
role model for all kids. People try to say I'm one thing or
another. I don't think it's a big deal being from mixed heritage
these days in America."
Hall's family history also became an issue in the media. He's the
son of a famous swimmer, Gary Hall Sr. There were the images from
the 1976 Montreal Games of Gary Sr. taking his two-year-old son
from his wife, Mary, and walking him around the pool to a
standing ovation after winning a bronze medal in the 100
butterfly. There was also the family legacy: Though Hall Sr. set
11 world records, he had never won an Olympic gold medal in three
Games. Hall Jr. also had never won gold. This was overdramatized.
"The big thing is, this kid is totally different from the Gary
Hall [Jr.] of a few years ago," Hall Sr. says. "He's confronted a
disease that made him worry about how he was going to function as
a person, much less an athlete. He had to go to four doctors
before he found one who said he should keep swimming. He wants to
be a spokesman for people with diabetes, to show how a person can
live a full life. That is what is important to him now."
Hall and Ervin made their Sydney debut on the first night of
swimming as part of the 4x100 relay team. It was not a great
debut. The U.S. men, who were unbeaten in every Olympics in which
the event had been contested, were nipped by the Australians,
even though Hall outswam Ian Thorpe on the anchor leg by six
hundredths of a second. Predictions of a U.S. disaster
flourished. Former Olympic champion Mark Spitz already had said
the U.S. women probably wouldn't win a single gold medal. Could
this be true?
Considering the rise in performance levels around the world, the
restrictions that limit each country to two swimmers per event,
plus the hostile road environment, this was the best U.S. swim
performance in history. Each night a different American won a
gold. Today, Megan Quann in the 100 breaststroke, tomorrow Misty
Hyman in the 200 butterfly. Today, Tom Dolan in the 400
individual medley, tomorrow Tom Malchow in the 200 fly.
Lenny Krayzelburg won gold in the 100 and the 200 backstroke and
added a third in the medley relay. Brooke Bennett settled in as
the successor to Janet Evans, taking the 400 and the 800
freestyle. The U.S. men's and women's 4x100 medley relay teams
smashed world records en route to victory. If some other swimmer
from some other country took gold, a U.S. swimmer was invariably
on the podium to receive silver or bronze. "It was inspiring to
watch," Hall said. "So many people came up with personal bests.
Some of the most inspiring performances were from people who
didn't get medals, who finished fifth in the best times of their
On the fifth day of swimming, Hall was on the medal stand again,
to receive a bronze for the 100 freestyle. The winner was Pieter
van den Hoogenband, 27, of the Netherlands, who set the world
record in the semifinals. Van den Hoogenband, also with a gold
and the world record in the 200 freestyle, shared honors as the
meet's individual star with teammate Inge de Bruijn, who won gold
and set world records in the 100 butterfly and the 50 and the 100
free. The two swimmers were coached by the same Dutchman,
31-year-old Jacco Verhaeren, and that brought out the familiar
international distress flags for drugs.
How had one man developed two overpowering swimmers? What was the
secret? Wasn't de Bruijn, at 27, a bit old for the boost in her
performance? (In a two-week span in May she tied or broke six
world records.) How had van den Hoogenband pulled so far away
from the competition? The questions were asked.
"It's sad," said Verhaeren, who is also de Bruijn's boyfriend.
"If you swim fast, you're treated like a criminal. How do you
prove to people that you are clean? There is no way. I just came
on the bus with Inge to the pool, and she read one of these
stories and was crying. Why should someone be crying on the way
to the Olympics to swim for a gold medal? She said maybe she
shouldn't swim so fast and then the stories would stop. I told
her, 'No, then you're giving in to all these people.' I tell you
this: If one of my swimmers ever tested positive for drugs, you
would never see me on a pool deck again."
The 50 final on the seventh night of swimming was van den
Hoogenband's chance to add a third gold. He was the
second-fastest qualifier, behind Hall. Ervin was third. Alexander
Popov of Russia, the longtime king of the event and the
world-record holder (21.64), was fourth and looking to become the
first man to win gold medals in any individual event in three
straight Games. Any of the four had a solid chance to win.
"Do you know who worries me the most?" Gary Hall Sr. asked before
the race. "Anthony Ervin. I've said from the moment we got here
that he's the one to watch. Gary thinks so too."
Hall Sr. was happy simply to be at the race. Suffering from the
flu earlier in the week, he went into endotoxic shock in the
middle of the night. An ophthalmologist, Hall knew what was
happening. His blood pressure dropped in a hurry. He became very
weak. He lay on the floor, told his wife to call an ambulance and
knew that the next 30 minutes would determine whether he lived or
died. His body either would handle the shock or not. Though he
would be rushed to the hospital, he knew the battle would take
place within his body and would not be controlled by an outside
"I was in that ambulance, and I was thinking about Ron Karnaugh,
the swimmer whose father died at the opening ceremonies in
Barcelona," Hall Sr. said. "I was wondering, crazy as it sounds,
whether Gary would still swim his races if I died. That's how
serious it was. But by the time I got to the hospital I was fine.
My body handled the shock."
Two nights later he settled in with the rest of the crowd at the
pool. What would happen? There was his son, flexing muscles,
throwing an imaginary uppercut during introductions. There was
Ervin, who thought he'd be nervous but felt oddly at ease,
another swim meet, another pool, ready to race. There was van den
The race was the usual explosion of froth and flailing. There was
no conservation of energy, virtually no breathing. The only
strategy was to go as fast as you could. Hall got the best start.
Ervin caught him. Van den Hoogenband was close. Popov was flying.
Ervin...Hall...Hall...Ervin...van den Hoogenband? Popov?
They all reached the finish as if they were carried by one large
They turned...and looked. "I started out just trying to make
the team," Ervin said afterward. "A month ago that was in doubt.
Now I'm at the top of the mountain."
"It took me a while to figure out what had happened," Hall Jr.
said. "At first I thought I'd tied with van den Hoogenband. Then
I saw it was Anthony. If I had to share the gold with anyone, I'm
glad it was him."
Two men. Two gold medals. Small world.
"It's sad," said de Bruijn's coach. "If you swim fast, you are
treated like a criminal."
This was the best U.S. swim performance in history. Each night a
different American won a gold medal.