Michelle, golden belle

Guy Hodgson in Atlanta charts the rise of an also-swam to a medal collector
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At The end of the greatest week of her life, emotion poured out of Michelle Smith like the water dripping from her body. The woman whose red hair and beaming smile had become the image of the first week of the Centennial Olympics broke down in tears.

It was the first time we had seen the woman within in Atlanta. For seven days the 26-year-old swimmer from 10 miles outside Dublin had been tested in and out of the pool and had come through it seemingly untouched. But at the end, the joy, the relief, and a degree of anger wept over her. It was the bursting of a dam.

"I got my last medal round my neck," she said, "and as I came off the pool deck, I felt tears coming to my eyes. I'm so nervous up there when I get a medal but I'm happy, I enjoy it. This time I cried.

"I wondered 'is this because I've only got a bronze?' No, I was crying because I am going home with three golds and a bronze."

The last medal came in the early hours of yesterday morning in the 200 metres butterfly event that ironically was supposed to be her best. In a week in which she shook the swimming world her final surprise proved to be that she took a bronze rather than a fourth title that would have equalled Kristin Otto's record individual haul from the pool in one Games.

And what a seven days it has been. At the opening ceremony Ireland might have had a sketchy knowledge of the woman who was to become arguably the greatest sporting hero in their history, but very few others did. She was an also-swam, a woman who came in 26th in big meetings, not someone to trouble the great American powers like quadruple gold medallist, Janet Evans.

The impetus for change had come four years previously. Smith moved to the University of Houston and met the man who was to become her husband, a Dutch discus thrower called Eric de Bruin. A ban for taking steroids stopped his international career soon afterwards and he turned the vicarious pleasure of coaching his girlfriend instead.

"Meeting my husband was the turning point," Smith said. He knew a lot more about advanced methods of training than I did or any coach I had had previously. When he changed my training, I started improving.

"Basically I was a distance swimmer. All I did was a lot of lengths. I could swim and swim for ever but I had no speed. I did some speed work, I lost some weight, I worked in the gym and I changed my diet. All these things combined improved my body and my times."

In a sceptical world where improvement is met with suspicion, a staggering 19-second improvement in the 400m medley was never likely to be taken at face value universally. The Americans, Evans in particular, voiced the misgivings. "If you are asking me if there are accusations out there," she said, "then the answer is yes."

For the rest of the week Smith swam with suspicion above her head. In every press conference, she was asked whether she took drugs and every time she met these queries with plausible pleas of innocence. "All I do is train," she said. "I eat, I train, and I sleep, that is all I do. All this is down to hard work."

Before the final race, Smith was introduced to the President, Bill Clinton who could empathise with her problems. I'm sorry you have had to deal with this "crap" from the American press, he told her. "We know what it's like," he said.

In the years to come, the Irish will look back on Smith's final bronze as the gold that was lost for the sake of a decent pair of goggles. As she waited to compete the rubber suddenly snapped and as she searched desperately for her husband, her competitors marched into the pool. Unable to find Eric, she borrowed a pair from a Dutch swimmer but reached her block with only seconds before the race started. "It wasn't really me in the first 100 metres," she said. "Normally I'm, way up there but it took me a little while to get into the race. Having said that, I don't want to detract from the other two girls because they were fantastic." Australia's Susan O'Neill won the race in 2:07.76 while Smith was more than two seconds behind. Almost needless to say, it was another Irish record.

"My time would have been faster if it had been at the start of the week," she added, "but I had to make choices. If I hadn't swum the 200m medley I'd have gone quicker but then I wouldn't have had another gold medal. Then I'd have been going home with two golds and I don't know what. I've got three golds and a bronze and I'm very, very happy with that."

Michelle was not the only Smith to gain a medal on the final night in the pool. Graeme Smith also got a bronze, Britain's second of the Games in the 1500m freestyle. He broke the national record with a time of 15:02.48.

Smith, the fastest in his event this year coming into the Games, was caught by a blistering first quarter of the race by the reigning champion, Kieren Perkins, and could never catch the Australian. Even so, it appeared that he would take silver but in a stirring final 200mhe was pipped by another Australian, Daniel Kowalski, by 500ths of a second. "I came to get a medal," Smith said, "but I have to be disappointed that it wasn't a silver." In a week where Britain have found metal hard to detect, his disappointment should not linger.