Smith's gold makes Irish history

A change in training technique pays off. Guy Hodgson reports from Atlanta

Guy Hodgson
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02
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They expect to do well in some sports in Ireland but the swimming pool, forget it. Maybe it has something to do with St Patrick driving the snakes into the sea, but hitherto the Emerald Isle had taken to the water like concrete.

Which is why mouths dropped when Michelle Smith not only got a medal in the women's 400 metres individual medley but took the gold. Her devastating burst over the final freestyle 100m had the world, never mind the Irish, rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Smith, after all, could finish only 26th in the Barcelona Games and at the age of 26 she ought to have been settling in to the comfortable ranks of the also-swams she had lived in for most of her life. Instead she knocked a staggering 19 seconds off her time four years ago.

Where had she come from? Smith, red haired and pink faced from the effort, was mildly irritated by the question. "It hasn't been an explosion from nowhere," she said, referring to the steady if spectacular progress since 1994. "It's something I've been working at for three and a half years."

The key to Ireland's first gold in the pool came after the last Olympics when Smith, who hails from Rathcoole, a village 10 miles from Dublin, left her homeland in pursuit of a full-sized 50m pool and near full-time training at the University of Houston, Texas.

There she met her husband to be, Erik de Bruin, a Dutch Olympic discus thrower, and her life domestically and professionally was changed. Allying training schedules used by track and field athletes to the pool, she transformed her times. "I'm stronger, leaner and fitter," she said. "My husband has encouraged me to do weight-training and to change the way I work for events."

Having said that, if a Chinese woman had made the fantastic progress that Smith has achieved, the sport of swimming would be awash with scepticism that chemical as well physical work had something to do with it. Add that to the fact that de Bruin was banned for taking anabolic steroids in 1993 and eyebrows might to have hit the roof.

Smith's achievement has been taken at face value, however. "I've been tested three times in training already this year," she said a month before the Olympics. "I must be the most tested athlete in Ireland."

She was tested in the water by one of swimming's greats, Krisztina Egerszegi, who had four gold medals coming into Atlanta and who appeared set for another when she clocked the fastest time in the heats.

"I knew I had to be within two and a half seconds of Krisztina after the backstroke leg," Smith, who had led after the butterfly, said. Her ambition proved to be within her range because the Hungarian had opened a gap of only 1.69sec before Smith could allow her superiority in the breast and freestyle strokes to tell.

Slowly, painfully, she edged nearer and at the 300m mark she had whittled down the lead to just over half a second. Could she sustain it over the the final two lengths? She overwhelmed Egerszegi, sweeping past her with such force the surprised champion dropped back to third. Smith's margin of victory was enormous at this level, nearly three seconds

"I thought I would win when I passed Krisztina," she said. "I knew she couldn't come back at me." At the finish, Smith turned to the scoreboard, waved briefly in triumph and then burst into tears that did not stop flowing for a good half-hour.

She was not alone. Smith's first language is Gaelic and midway through her press conference the English questions and answers were suddenly interrupted by the Irish native tongue. The translation was "Congratulations. The people of Ireland will be crying with you tonight."

Expectation was soaring, too. "She could get four golds," said an Irish journalist drunk with excitement. "I think that's optimistic," Smith said. "Four events over seven days is very hard.

"I'm still in shock. I didn't realise I was the first Irish woman to win a medal and it's a gold. I can't do much better than that."

Yesterday she was trying to look forward rather than back, particularly at the 400m freestyle, an event which she is only in after an appeal by the Irish swimming authorities. A fortnight ago she set the fastest time for four years but did it after the qualifying date for Atlanta had passed. It took a fair degree of blarney to get her reinstated after an appeal.

Smith's last thoughts on a golden night were for her parents watching in the stands. "I couldn't look at them before the race," she said, "it would have put too much pressure on me. Only afterwards did I wave to them. This is their reward for years of getting up at 5am to drive me to the pool."

In Ireland yesterday a swimmer inspired to follow Smith would have been shocked to hear the noise. At 5am the parties were still going on.

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