SYDNEY, Australia - Joanna Zeiger said her aim in Australia was just to have fun. Rarely do the Olympics produce such exuberant fourth-place finishers.
Beneath a continental landmark and aided by divers equipped with sonar devices designed to ward off the wayward shark, the Ph.D. candidate from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and 47 other women dove into Farm Cove and made history this morning in the first Olympic triathlon.
The Games that will provide a bridge to the next millennium added a number of new sports and events, none more anticipated than the triathlon, the endurance test of swimming, cycling and running.
In a nation that prizes fitness and has stretched its limits to stage the Olympics, it was an appropriately vibrant start to the first full day of competition.
Zeiger was fourth, 17 seconds from a medal after she dropped her asthma inhaler and couldn't find the strength to surge up a hill in the Royal Botanic Gardens with less than two miles left in the test that consists of a 0.9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike and a 6.2-mile run.
"I'm not going to be on the medal stand, and in no way am frustrated," Zeiger said. "I had a blast. The crowd was absolutely incredible."
Starting the swim, making transitions and finishing the run in front of the Sydney Opera House, the avant garde structure that serves as a beacon to the world on sprawling Port Jackson, Zeiger was seventh out of the water and ninth when she began the run.
In fewer than 1,000 meters, she had worked her way up to a five-woman pack that would decide the medals.
Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon would hold off Australian favorite Michellie Jones for the gold by two seconds in 2 hours, 40.52 seconds. The bronze went to another Swiss woman as Magali Messmer was also able to break clear of Zeiger, who finished in 2:01:25.74.
"The front-runners made a surge and I couldn't respond," Zeiger said. "My heart rate got a little too high, and there was nothing I could do."
During her early push in the run, Zeiger reached into her fanny pack for her asthma inhaler, which slipped out of her hands. Asked if the incident impacted her performance, Zeiger said, "I'm not even going to speculate."
Zeiger said she couldn't have cared less at finishing just short of a medal. She saw an American flag in the first row of the grandstand, impulsively took it and waved it in her closing strides.
"I don't know who I got it from," Zeiger said. "I just grabbed it, and kept going."
Born in Baltimore 30 years ago, Zeiger returned in 1995 to work toward a doctoral degree in genetic epidemiology at Hopkins.
She began this year thinking that she was more suited to the much-longer Ironman version of the triathlon. Zeiger will tackle that ordeal in Hawaii next month, but she wants to extend her stay here to participate in the Oct. 1 closing ceremonies.
She admitted that she hasn't done as much work on her doctoral thesis, on cleft palates, as she would have liked here.
Zeiger arrived off a second-place finish in the U.S. championships to Jones, who is considered the best female triathlete ever. That runner-up finish to the Australian made Zeiger the American champion.
A relative newcomer to the International Triathlon Union circuit, Zeiger didn't have enough ITU points to represent the U.S. in a World Cup race over the same Olympic course last April, but her unfamiliarity with the surroundings didn't detain her.
Most come to the triathlon with a background in swimming, including Zeiger, who qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in that sport in 1988 and '92, when she was a student at Brown University.
Sheila Taormina, who won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 800 freestyle relay in Atlanta four years ago, showed that her range isn't limited to 200 meters as she had a 37-second lead out of the water, where sharks had been sighted earlier this year.
"Boxers have it easy," Zeiger said. "They're not in the water. It was a brutal swim. There were so many people fighting for the same piece of water out there. I got bumped a lot."
Drafting is legal in the Olympics, and, in the cycling portion of the triathlon, the chase pack needed just one of the six laps of a hilly, 4.1-mile loop through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park to reel in Taormina.
Zeiger was seventh out of the water, but lost a few spots in the transition and began the cycle in 12th. She joined the chase pack, worked with American teammates Taormina and Jennifer Gutierrez, and was ahead of the crash on lap three that claimed Canadian Carol Montgomery.
Also entered in track and field's 10,000, Montgomery was the strongest runner in the field, and her elimination changed the race's complexion.
Zeiger is no slouch in running shoes, either, as she competed in the U.S. marathon trials. Running on a path around Farm Cove, with the 63-degree water she had been in an hour earlier on her left, Zeiger mustered her considerable resolve and became a medal contender.
Undeterred by her narrow miss of a medal, Zeiger raved about an inaugural in which the only apparent glitch for the organizers was the medal count. While McMahon, 33, swept up her 3-year-old son, Dominic, before accepting the gold, Jones was left with the silver. The Australians expected to place more than one woman in the top four.
"This sport definitely belongs here," Zeiger said. "It's made up of swimming, biking and running. That's the staple of the Olympic program, and we put it all together."
Editor's note: Dates and times in Olympic stories refer to Sydney's time zone, which is 15 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time.
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