The rebel finds it hard to give up

SWIMMING

It began as a giggle and ended in tears. Second time around, Sarah Hardcastle found giving up swimming much harder than the first and on the side of the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre she wept buckets.

The 27- year-old from Bracknell had just swum her last race, finishing eighth in the 800 metre freestyle and announced her retirement. The girl who had found success simple, winning Olympic medals at the age of 15, and then her sport such a chore she retired for six years, suddenly found it hard to let go.

"I shall miss it," she said, "but this definitely is my last race. I'm going to New Orleans with my husband for a short holiday, but I will come back for the closing ceremony to say farewell to it all."

Twelve years ago, Hardcastle, a diminutive rebel with her hair dyed red, white and blue, had won her silver and bronze almost without realising the importance of it. "It was a giggle," she said. "Almost too easy."

It was far from that in her last final. Having qualified in 8min 37.54 sec, she swam four seconds slower and never threatened to get a third medal.

"I told myself I would be happy if I finished in the top eight," she said. "But now it's happened, I'm not. I was really pleased with my heat swim, I wish I could have transferred that to the final."

Hardcastle responded to David Wilkie's comments that he had been "ashamed" by Britain's efforts in Atlanta. "That's not fair," she replied to the Montreal gold medallist. "It's not as if we're coming here and not trying. I wouldn't be crying now if I didn't care about the sport."

The tears elsewhere in the Olympic pool were of triumph. The Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200m backstroke to become the first swimmer in history to win five individual golds and the first woman to win the same event in three successive Olympics.

In the heats yesterday, Michelle Smith moved nearer a fourth gold, qualifying for the final of the women's 200m butterfly in 2:10.03, while Olympic officials threatened strong action against rumour-mongers leading a drugs smear campaign against the Irish woman. The tough stance came just before a meeting with President Clinton."He said he was full of admiration and also the way I had dealt with all the crap from the media," Smith said. "He said he had had to deal with that."

Britain had another bad day. Adam Ruckwood and Martin Harris failed to reach the final of the 200m backstroke and Sue Rolph missed out in the 50m freestyle, coming sixth in her heat in 26.39.

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