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Swimming: Smith turning the tide of opinion

Stan Hey says winning is still not a simple matter for the heroine of Atlanta
Most champions go back to defend their titles, but for the Irish swimming heroine Michelle Smith, the forthcoming European Championships in Seville will also be a chance to defend her honour.

Two years ago, when the championships were held in Vienna, Smith was just one of many improving swimmers and her victories in the 200 metres individual medley and 200m butterfly, plus her silver medal in the 400m individual medley, were quietly acknowledged within the specialised sporting community in which she operates. But then, in the space of a week in the Atlanta Olympics, Smith became a global figure as she swept to three gold medals and a bronze, and became the centre of spiteful and hazy allegations about the sudden improvement in her form, mostly generated by a vengeful American press disappointed at the failure of their own stars.

The allegations were granted house room because of the controversy surrounding her husband and coach, the former Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin. He achieved his "former" status when he produced a positive test for human chorionic gonadothropin at an athletics meeting in Cologne in August 1993. The substance, derived from the urine of pregnant women, generates increased testosterone, and although de Bruin's level was measured at only 0.7 above the precautionary limit the International Amateur Athletic Federation slapped a four-year ban on him, despite his own Dutch association upholding his appeal.

The combination of de Bruin's "conviction" and Smith's improved times in the Olympic pool made for easy assumptions at what might have lain behind her successes, despite the fact that Smith has never returned a positive dope test in her life. "I am the most tested swimmer in history," is Smith's not unreasonable defence considering the regular ambushes made on her by medics from Fina, the sport's governing body, under their random testing programme.

The suspicion was nevertheless that somebody from the increasingly discredited world of power athletics might have brought some of its avoidance technology on drug tests to bear on the relatively calm backwaters of swimming. Guilt by association seemed the primary charge, especially when de Bruin was alleged to have borrowed a pass to get into the doping-control centre to see Smith at the Vienna championships.

Now that de Bruin's ban has been lifted and he is fully accredited as Smith's coach, he will have access to all areas, provided the championship authorities are prepared to forgive his previous indiscretion.

What all this murk might be in danger of masking is the possibility that de Bruin has brought a genuine breakthrough in the regimented arena of coaching swimmers. Smith herself has no doubts that the new system de Bruin brought to her training is at the heart of her success.

"I had never been involved in my own training programme before I met Erik," Smith says. "I had always been told what to do and gone off and done it. This was different. The more Erik learned about swimming the more he was able to identify which muscle groups controlled the different movements in the various strokes. Once he had done this he devised weight training exercises to strengthen the muscles up."

De Bruin's methods will come under further scrutiny in Seville, especially if Smith can recapture Olympic form. Two weeks ago in Belfast, swimming in the Irish National Championships, she set a time of 2min 08.1sec in the 200m butterfly, the second fastest in Europe this year. But she still wasn't happy. "I thought I should have swum better in Belfast but I didn't have the change of gear in the second half of the race, which was very important to me in Atlanta," Smith said last week. Yesterday she set a European short-course record of 2min 7.04sec for the event, swimming alone against the clock in Cork. Smith said yesterday she had entered six events in Spain, but is unlikely to swim them all, probably dropping the 400m and 800m freestyle.

Before yesterday's swim there had been an outside chance that she would miss the Europeans and concentrate on preparations for the World Championships in January in Perth, Australia. "It's hard for her to peak now in August, and then let herself down before trying to peak again in January," says Chalkie White, swimming correspondent of the Irish Independent.

Smith has had a giddying time since she returned to a presidential welcome at Dublin Airport a year ago this week. She has produced an autobiography, appeared regularly on Irish television and also increased her commercial sponsorship. But it hasn't stopped her getting through two agents in an attempt to strike the right balance in her life between making money and swimming for further glory. Going back into the pool at Seville and succeeding will add a further chapter to her career, although for some people Michelle Smith can never win.