U.S. Swimming in Murky Waters

Guylaine Cloutier walked slowly from the water, droplets still glistening on her arms.

"I am hurting," she said. "Every time I pulled underwater tonight, I hurt. I guess I gave everything I had this morning."

The Canadian swimmer rose at 8. She swam the breaststroke leg in a qualifying heat for her 400-meter medley relay team at noon.

Returned to her dorm for a nap at 3. Drove back to the Georgia Tech Aquatics Center at 6.

Jumped into the water for the final around 8:45 p.m., only to have her weary Canadian team finish fifth.

To a gold-medal U.S. team that endured no such hardships.

Because the four women on that team hadn't swum in the morning preliminaries.

Four other women swam it for them.

There are two words for this behavior: dirty pool.

OK, there are two other words: the rules.

Swimming's international governing body, FINA, allows countries to make as many changes as they choose between the preliminary team and the final team.

On Wednesday night, five of the final teams changed nobody. Australia changed two swimmers. Russia changed one.

The United States changed all four.

Smaller teams such as Canada and Germany would have done the same, if they'd had four other swimmers to substitute.

Silly them. They gather every quadrennial, figuring that a four-swimmer relay team really means only four swimmers.

Next thing they know, the Olympics will allow tag-team wrestling, two triathletes in a decathlon, and a special form of weightlifting. One guy cleans, another guy jerks.

Guylaine Cloutier winced.

"Is this rule fair?" she said, smiling. "I don't think so."

Beth Botsford, Amanda Beard, Angel Martino and Amy van Dyken swam brilliantly in the final, finishing nearly three seconds ahead of their closest competitors.

But for those scoring at home, it's not a win. It's a save.

Whitney Hedgepeth, Kristine Quance, Jenny Thompson and Catherine Fox did the grunt work, showing up nine hours earlier and recording the fastest qualifying time.

But no fools, they.

They won gold medals Wednesday night by sitting on their Speedos.

That's right, all eight American women will receive medals for the relay victory. And the U.S. doesn't even have to buy any of them.

Thus Quance becomes one of the first swimmers to win a gold medal shortly after asking her coach to bench her because she was swimming so poorly.

Beard actually rushed to the swimming complex Wednesday morning and prepared to replace Quance in the preliminary.

"I felt so bad, I wanted to let Amanda do it," Quance said. "But they said it was too late."

Quance, who had failed to qualify in the 200 individual medley, dried her tears and swam only the eighth-best breaststroke leg of the prelims.

Ten years from now, that gold will have a world-record shine.

Give FINA credit for realizing that this is a particularly stupid part of the rule. Several years ago it amended the constitution to disallow such handouts.

But deduct points for the FINA secretary who mis-typed the amendment, leaving the loophole that the U.S. has happily paddled through.

"I love it," said Beth Botsford.

She would.

She wasn't sucking down chlorine for breakfast, unlike 25 of the 28 competitors from other countries.

"To have a morning off would be great for a swimmer right now," Australian star Elli Overton said. "It has to give a person an advantage."

Only six of 25 double-dipping swimmers did not improve their performance in the evening, so they couldn't have been too tired. But the fresh Americans topped their advance foursome by nearly three seconds.

You've always wondered about the incredible U.S. relay dominance, even in the leanest of years. This only makes you wonder some more.

After winning gold medals in all four men's and women's relays here so far, the U.S. has won gold medals in 42 of 56 relays in Olympic history.

In medley relays, when teams generally sub finalists more frequently, the U.S. has won gold medals in 15 of 17 events.

The U.S. swimmers, to their credit, do not downplay the rule's effect.

Said Botsford, "This definitely gives us an advantage."

Said men's star Jeff Rouse: "It's fair--for us. Other big countries could do it too; they have enough swimmers."

And the smaller countries?

"Well, usually they are lucky if they can get four people together, period," he said with a little laugh. "So usually they are not a factor."

Several U.S. officials said Wednesday that they would not be surprised if the rule eventually is changed.

"It will be brought up again, and I'm sure people will be pushing and pulling over it again," said one.

And you know which way the U.S. is voting.

The important thing, said Rouse, is that the best swimmers are allowed to perform in the most important races.

"In something like the medley relay, the four best people on the team had really already qualified through their individual performance," he said. "It's easy to get to the finals, so let them wait for the finals."

The best swimmers in the most important races. Funny, but isn't that what Ireland's embattled Michelle Smith has been talking about all week?

Maybe our swimmers should stop gossiping about performance-enhancing drugs long enough to look at their rules-enhanced relay teams.

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