Disgraced swimmer in race to win Ireland's greatest woman vote

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The Independent Online

An Irish swimmer publicly disgraced for her drug- taking is inexplicably in the running for the title of Ireland's Greatest Woman in a Dublin survey.

An Irish swimmer publicly disgraced for her drug- taking is inexplicably in the running for the title of Ireland's Greatest Woman in a Dublin survey.

To the puzzlement of almost everyone, Michelle Smith de Bruin is in third place in the telephone poll conducted by one of the Irish Republic's most popular radio shows.

She was banned from competitive swimming in 1998 after failing a drugs test; she appeared to have added whiskey to her urine sample.

Two years earlier she had sensationally won three gold and one bronze medal at the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Although she was allowed to keep her medals, the ban ended her competitive swimming career.

With the results of the popularity poll due to be announced by the state broadcaster, Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE), on Friday, Smith de Bruin was last night in third place. In front of her are Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, and Nano Nagle, an 18th-century nun who promoted education for women.

The swimmer was nominated by her husband and former coach, Erik de Bruin. During his own career as an athlete he was also the subject of a ban for using illegal drugs.

In putting her forward, he said: "Fairytale became a horror movie, but, with the same determination that helped her win Olympic gold medals, she went back to college as a mature student."

Voting is by telephone and callers give no reason for their choice. For this reason it is impossible to say whether the support for her should be regarded as an indication of public forgiveness or as a lark by pranksters.

Since her ban was announced, the swimmer has made no grand gesture of reconciliation that might have increased her standing in public esteem. RTE has promoted the poll for several weeks and will be embarrassed if the swimmer should pull ahead and win the title.

Smith de Bruin had returned to Ireland as a hero after winning three gold medals and one bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the most ever won by an Irish athlete at a single games.

An anabolic steroid, Androstenedione, was found in her urine sample in 1998, and although she has strenuously denied ever taking performance-enhancing substances, she retired in 1999 after losing an appeal against her four-year suspension.

She studied law as a mature student at University College, Dublin, and started practising as a barrister late last year.

Despite her notoriety, her nomination will not be a surprise to everyone - last year her swimming feats were in a video of Irish sporting achievements.

The final result will be announced on the Marian Finucane show.

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