Lots of legwork: how Michelle shocked the world

Alan Murdoch explains why back home in Ireland Michelle Smith's success is attributed to hard work and improved technique
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The Independent Online
Irish swimming insiders were yesterday emphatic in rejecting American suggestions that Michelle Smith's emergence as an Olympic champion was either sudden or unnatural for a woman of 26 - well above the average age of Atlanta finalists.

Instead, in Ireland the Atlanta innuendos were being derided as inevitable recriminations from a country unable to accept that its own star Janet Evans had been convincingly killed off by the ultra-determined Smith's fitness and superior technique.

Chalkie White, the former national swimming champion and sports writer, yesterday countered the argument that Smith could not have notched up an 18-second improvement on 1992 times in her 400-metre individual medley on Saturday by normal methods.

He pointed out that Smith had gone to the Barcelona Olympics hampered by an injury sustained training in Florida. Her times that year, it was also noted, were poorer because of the onset of glandular fever. "She didn't get the chance to swim well in competition [then] and we didn't get to see what she could do," he said.

Irish commentators have been highlighting how from the mid-Eighties the dogged Smith had been steadily improving, knocking 10 seconds off her times in some events by 1990 in slow but gradual progress.

The key change came when her training regime was criticised in 1992 by Erik de Bruin, a Dutch shot-putter she met at a Barcelona social function. He subsequently became her coach, took her to the Netherlands to train - Ireland has no 50-metre pool - and last month also became her husband. He identified a critical weakness: spending too long on long-distance swimming that sapped strength for later sprint exercises.

Using video analysis and tactical planning, he told her to learn from the way track and field athletes prepare. "They sat down and watched videos which identified her weak points," White said. "He identified muscle groups that controlled certain movements, and they then went to the gym and worked on weights and strengthened those muscles and got her fitter."

White said de Bruin restructured her entire schedule "and made sure she did the right training at the right time".

Irish television yesterday used underwater film, analysed minutely by Gary O'Toole, a champion swimmer and qualified doctor, to demonstrate Smith's vastly superior technique to her 400-metre rivals. In particular she used a visibly quicker, more powerful leg action to speed propulsion, whereas other relied more heavily on arm power to lesser effect.

Diet and discipline were ruthlessly controlled. This meant little or no social life for two years as Smith headed for bed at 9pm nightly. From childhood she had been used to 5am starts. When the couple married last month Smith went to the registrar's office from morning training and returned to the pool later that day. Such restraint, Smith points out, has already allowed track and marathon peak-performance ages to be lifted to the late twenties and early thirties.

White, like others in the Irish entourage, accepted Americans were bound to question Smith's improvement, but as as the Irish champion herself stressed, this was in part inevitable because she has done little of her swimming in the United States. Her European credentials were confirmed unambiguously last year with European Championship successes in Vienna.

In Ireland, Smith's success is being widely celebrated as a long-overdue resurgence in women's sport. Mass euphoria has yet to touch Irish World Cup campaign levels, but tired heads and sore throats were yesterday being nursed in the The Poitin Still, in Smith's home village of Rathcoole, south of Dublin, where pandemonium has twice erupted as a crowd watched their local heroine.

Irish media attention has been huge with Smith's story splashed across seven pages on Monday in the two main Dublin daily papers, not least because no Irish woman athlete had ever won an Olympic medal before. Her golds - unexpectedly stealing the limelight from the runner Sonia O'Sullivan - were also the first Irish success at Atlanta by either a male or female competitor.

The breakthroughs by Smith and O'Sullivan are part of a wider Irish women's emancipation. In sport this has been nothing short of revolutionary. Irish women's athletics was in effect wiped out for over a decade by the Archbishop of Dublin. In 1949, with women's sport on the up after Fanny Blankers- Koen's inspirational victories in the Olympics, John Charles McQuaid, wrote a Lenten pastoral letter damning it as "unbecoming".

One of the foremost Irish-speaking celebrities, Smith promotes the language on radio ads and is sponsored at the Olympics by Bord na Gaeilge, a national cultural body. Irish is her first language: she attended Irish language primary and secondary schools, and came first in the country in the subject at the equivalent of A-level.