Payback is good, but payback at the Olympic Games can be golden. The swimming competition ended Friday with a crescendo for the once-lightly regarded U.S. men. The 400-meter medley relay team set a world record, and Brad Bridgewater made up for a childhood of lost races to current U.S. teammate Tripp Schwenk and won the gold medal in the 200 backstroke. Schwenk won the silver.
It was another flag-waving night for the Americans at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. The relay--the meet's last event--ignited the crowd. When the time of 3 minutes 34.84 seconds was flashed on the scoreboard, along with the notation of world and Olympic record, the crowd erupted.
The former record was 3:36.93, set by the United States in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and tied by the U.S. team in 1992.
The U.S. men and women swept all six relay events here. The 400 medley relay is practically the province of the American men. They have never lost the race in the World Championships or the Olympics. Since the relay was included in the Olympics in 1960, every time the U.S. men have swum the event in an Olympic final, they have won and set or equaled a world record. (When the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics, the Australians won. No record.)
With that remarkable history in the event, did the team feel pressure?
"You could look on it as pressure," leadoff man Jeff Rouse said. "I think we all looked on it as a challenge. We just thought, 'How much are we going to break the record?' "
Neither the victory nor the record was assured, no matter the event's history. The Russian team featured world-record holders on the two final legs. Each American rallied. Jeremy Linn's breaststroke leg was the fastest in history. Mark Henderson held on to the huge lead during his third leg of butterfly and Gary Hall Jr. launched his 6-foot-6 frame into the pool and held off the world's best sprinter, Alexander Popov. Hall had finished a close second to Popov in the 50 and 100 freestyles.
U.S. Swimming had expected the men's team to produce only about four gold medals, perhaps three silvers, but after the relay victory, the American men had far exceeded that with six gold medals and six more silver medals.
In the other men's event, Kieren Perkins of Australia won the 1,500-meter freestyle in 14:56.40.
The evening began with a gold and silver for the United States. Bridgewater's winning time was 1 minute 58.54 seconds. Schwenk finished in 1:58.99 and Emanuele Merisi of Italy was third in 1:59.18.
Bridgewater sat around for six nervous days waiting to swim his only event. He trained here beside Schwenk, who used to regularly trounce him when they swam as teenagers in Florida.
At that time, Bridgewater wasn't even the best swimmer in his family. His older sister Christy's career bore the first fruit--she was awarded a scholarship to Villanova. Bridgewater says today that his sister has always been his swimming idol.
Bridgewater got his scholarship, to Texas. But after too much partying and too little studying in his junior year, he flunked out.
He tried to console himself by going to the 1994 World Championships but failed to make the final. Bridgewater returned to Texas and set about transferring to USC, but he first had to regain his eligibility by taking three extension classes at UCLA that fall.
He did become eligible, but his introduction to Los Angeles was harsh. Bridgewater had two quintessential L.A. experiences in his first two months: His car was broken into and he was shot at on the freeway by another motorist.
While training under Mark Schubert at USC, before he was eligible, Bridgewater had to endure one more indignity: To preserve the eligibility of his teammates, he was banished to the diving well for his training.
He's swimming with the big boys now.
After the medal ceremony, Bridgewater faced his real test of the night. He had to negotiate a barrier and a fence to get to his family and their teary hugs.
Schwenk brings out a strain of humor in Bridgewater too. During what is normally a formal news conference, the two hefty men joked about their "weight problem." Each is 6 feet 3 and, as Schwenk noted, "Between the two of us, we put 400 pounds in the pool."
The weight of gold and silver, and now, history.
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The final 1996 Olympic swimming medal tally:
Country G S B T United States 13 11 2 26 Australia 2 4 6 12 Germany 0 5 7 12 Russia 5 1 2 8 China 1 3 2 6
Faster and Faster They Go
The U.S. men's swimming 400 individual medley relay team has set a world record in every Olympics in which it has competed. A look:
Team: Frank McKinney, Paul Hait, Lance Larson, F. Jeffrey Farrell
Team: Harold Thompson Mann, William Craig, Fred Schmidt, Stephen Clark
Team: Charles Kickcox, Donald McKenzie, Douglas Russell, Kenneth Walsh
Team: Michael Stamm, Thomas Bruce, Mark Spitz, Jerry Heidenreich
Team: John Naber, John Hencken, Matt Vogel, Jim Montgomery
Team: Richard Carey, Steve Lundquist, Pablo Morales, Rowdy Gaines
Team: David Berkoff, Richard Schroeder, Matt Biondi, Christopher Jacobs
Team: Jeff Rouse, Nelson Diebel, Pablo Morales, Jon Olsen
Team: Jeff Rouse, Jeremy Linn, Mark Henderson, Gary Hall Jr.