Swimming: Sublime Smith but no medal for Gillingham

OLYMPIC GAMES
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The Independent Online
Michelle Smith, the darling of the Olympic Pool, if you give or take a few Americans, moved into a more comfortable position among the greats of swimming last night when she won her third gold medal in five days at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre.

Last night she added the 200 metres individual medley to the 400 freestyle and the 400 individual medley, her burgeoning bullion haul despite a back injury. Her best event, it should be note, does not come until tomorrow, the 200m butterfly.

The race followed much the same pattern as her 400m medley victory. She was quickest in the butterfly section, dropped back over the back and breaststrokes and then stormed to victory with a freestyle charge. Her time, 2min 13.93sec, naturally enough, was an Irish record.

Barely a day goes by in the Olympic Pool without Smith being the focus of attention. Yesterday she managed to make the world sit up even before she took to the water with an injury scare and a missing drugs test sample.

Ireland's new heroine has developed a slight back strain which probably stems from the number of times she has had to stoop to allow another medal ribbon to be placed round her neck.

Earlier, her injury had been revealed and her preparation questioned by her national medical officer, Dr Joe Cummiskey. "She has an injury in the high part of her back caused by the amount of training she does," he said. "Whenever she comes back to us from these sessions she is always exhausted."

Cummiskey was also irritated that the results of a drugs test on Smith had not been announced. "These should have come out 24 hours ago," he said, "but when we ask the IOC's medical commisson they say they are waiting for the right batch. We are confident Michelle is negative, she has been tested 11 times in the last 12 months."

Meanwhile the head of swimming's international Hall of Fame, Samuel Freas, has stepped in to defend Smith whose massive improvement, the Americans say, have provoked questions about whether she is on drugs. He was present when Smith set the fastest time of the year in the 400m freestyle at Fort Lauderdale just before the Games.

"I said then she is going to be the star of the Games," he said. "Look at Sergei Bubka. All the time he ran up and down with that pole and eventually it's discovered he was a 10.3sec 100m runner. They never knew he could run fast."

There were two ways at looking at Nick Gillingham last night. Either his silver and bronze from the last two Olympics pointed the way to a complete set or it marked an orderly retreat from the great prize.

Unfortunately for the 29-year-old Birmingham swimmer the latter proved to be the case. He tried but his body was too far beyond its peak to respond and instead of a glorious end to eight years in the vanguard of British swimming he could only finish fourth in the 200m breaststroke. His time of 2:14.37 was 1.8sec slower than the winner, Hungary's Norbert Rozsa.

It proved to be a frustrating end to an ambition. Gillingham knew he was slower than his peak of four years ago when his 2:11.29 was so good it is still the third best of all time but so was everyone else. It was a question of who had retreated least.

"It looks like the end of my career as I'm too old to go to Sydney," Gillingham said. "I wanted to get a medal to create a bit of history by getting one in three successive Olympics. I'm very disappointed."

Gillingham, three times a European champion, had qualified fifth fastest just behind Rozsa with whom he has spent the latter half of his career vying for titles.

He started slowly, as always; it is in the second half of the race that his smooth stroke begins to make its impact. At 100 metres he was sixth while the Russian Andrey Korneyev made the pace flanked by the Hungarians, Rozsa and Karoly Guttler.

As the others tired, however, Gillingham's action began to take over and he inched slowly towards the leaders. At the 150-metre mark it appeared his acceleration might push him for a challenge for the lead.

He was too far behind this time, however, and Rozsa proved to be a comprehensive winner. Guttler was second in 2:13.03 and Korneyev third in 2:13.17.

You have to go back to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 since a British woman made it to a swimming final so Sarah Hardcastle's qualification for tonight's 800m freestyle was worth a serious mention in despatches.

The Bracknell swimmer has insisted since she came out of a six-year retirement in 1992 that she would not be putting herself through the chore of training if she did not believe she could win a medal. Yesterday she reinforced that belief, winning her heat with the fourth fastest time, 8:37.54. "I'm 27, I'm the first woman in a final for 12 years and it's my personal best since I came back. I'm very happy. It's quite an achievement for a little country like Britain which doesn't get much support."

James Hickman had the misfortune to be in the presence of greatness yesterday. The Stockport swimmer, who broke the British record for the 200m butterfly on Monday, set a personal best for the men's 100m butterfly with 53.73. In a heat in which Australia's Scott Miller broke the Olympic record with 52.9, he was fifth and missed the final by five places.

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