An athlete who hit the international scene swimming in singular fashion as a teenager left the Olympic stage with her fifth individual gold medal in hand.
It wasn't Janet Evans.
She could have joined American speedskater Bonnie Blair in the record book, but the torch went out of Evans' legendary career in a sluggish sixth-place finish in the 800-meter freestyle in 8 minutes 38.91 seconds Thursday with President Clinton in the stands at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. Brooke Bennett won the gold medal in 8:27.89.
"It's kind of sad for me, kind of the end of an era for me," said Evans, who won three gold medals in 1988, and a gold and a silver in 1992.
And two races later, Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary beat American Whitney Hedgepeth in the 200 backstroke, to win her fifth individual gold medal and third consecutive Olympic women's 200 backstroke title. Her winning time was 2:07.83, and accompanied her bronze in the 400 individual medley on Saturday.
She first gained international prominence as a 14-year-old at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, winning the 200 backstroke and placing second in the 100 backstroke and then won the 100 and 200 backstrokes and 400 IM in Barcelona.
Her nickname was Eger--Hungarian for mouse--and a coach said she was so little as a 5-year-old swimmer he could have carried her in a plastic bag. The 21-year-old matched the record of Australian legend Dawn Fraser, the only woman to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympics.
Fraser had dearly wanted to see Evans or Egerszegi match her feat. She traveled to Atlanta but was hospitalized here earlier in the week because of chest pains.
Egerszegi became the only Olympic swimmer to win five gold medals in individual events, surpassing Mark Spitz, Tamas Darnyi, Roland Matthes, Kristin Otto and Evans, who were all tied with four.
Which medal was her favorite?
"All of them," she said. "But maybe the last one is the best one."
Evans had dearly wanted one more. But she never got close to winning even a bronze. She unexpectedly failed to reach the finals of the 400 freestyle, qualifying ninth and swam in the 800 with a broken toe, which needed eight shots of Novocain to ease the pain. After the first 400 meters, it was clear Evans would not be in gold-medal contention and she continued to lose time, rather than picking it up.
Bennett, who dedicated the gold medal to her late grandfather who taught her how to swim, was in first place by the first 100 and never lost the lead. Winning the silver was Dagmar Hase of Germany in 8:29.31 and Kirsten Vlieghuis of the Netherlands was third in 8:30.84.
Evans was in sixth place at 100 meters and was still there at the end. She swam over to hug Bennett, and the 16-year-old from Plant City, Fla., acknowledged Evans' considerable legacy.
"Janet will always be the queen of distance swimming," Bennett said. "I've only started to peak. She's got all those gold medals, and national titles and [three] world records. She is always going to be the queen, but maybe I'll be up there one day.
"Even 20 years down the road, everybody is going to remember Janet, exactly the same as Mark Spitz."
In addition to Bennett's gold and Hedgepeth's silver, the American woman won one more gold medal Thursday, in the 800 freestyle relay, a new Olympic event. The team of Trina Jackson, Cristina Teuscher, Sheila Taormina and Jenny Thompson won it in 7:59.87. UCLA's Annette Salmeen, Ashley Whitney and Lisa Jacob of Mission Viejo will also get gold medals because they were on the relay in the morning preliminaries.
The relay team met with Clinton afterward.
"We had a normal conversation," Teuscher said. "He asked a few normal questions. He wanted to know how big my feet are."
Taormina had a question of her own. "I asked him if he was wearing a bulletproof vest right now," she said, adding that he wasn't.
* POPOV WINS AGAIN: The "Russian Rocket" completes a double-double with gold in the 50, but it's no Hall of shame for the runner-up, who wins his second silver. S12