SYDNEY, Australia - Even on the victory stand, with a gold medal around his neck, the national anthem of the Netherlands playing and his country's flag being raised above the pool, Pieter van den Hoogenband shook his head as if he could not believe he had beaten the great Ian Thorpe.
Last night's 200-meter freestyle was the Olympic race that would stop the nation, a local newspaper headline declared. At the age of 17, Thorpe was such an Australian hero after winning two gold medals that a postage stamp already had been issued in his name.
Idolatry, of course, does not guarantee success. It was van den Hoogenband, not Thorpe, who won the 200 freestyle, matching the world record of 1 minute 45.35 seconds that he had set a day earlier.
"I'm not going to win every race or break a world record," Thorpe said after finishing second in 1:45.83, nearly a half-second behind.
"I gave it my best shot and came out with the best result possible tonight" he added. "I felt I would go faster. I was disappointed with the time, but not the result."
This year, van den Hoogenband took a leave from medical school to concentrate on swimming.
"The whole year he was breaking world records, I was home training," van den Hoogenband said of Thorpe. "He motivated me to train harder. Now I won. It's amazing."
If victory brought great surprise to the Dutch medical student, it brought sobering confirmation to the American swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg. He was up next in the 100-meter backstroke and he knew now that anything could happen.
Krayzelburg had immigrated to Los Angeles from the former Soviet Union as a teen-ager, his parents seeking to escape anti-Semitism and possible conscription of their son into some endless war. His father had pushed him and he had become a world-record holder in the backstroke. He was a heavy favorite last night, but if Thorpe could be beaten, nothing was certain.
"I told Pieter he was my inspiration," Krayzelburg said. "He was the underdog. He showed a great example that nothing is over until you swim the race."
As Thorpe could not, Krayzelburg controlled the 100-meter backstroke from the beginning, reaching the wall in 53.72 seconds and covering his face with his hands.
It had all seemed so improbable, coming to a new country, learning a new language, wanting to stop swimming and continuing only because his father would not let him quit. And now he was an Olympic champion. He did not break his own world record of 53.60 seconds, but records are ephemeral. A gold medal is forever.
"This is Mount Everest," Krayzelburg said. "It's great to know for the rest of your life you had this journey and it is completed. That is the most beautiful thing."
Krayzelburg, who had been swimming since he was 9, considered giving it up at 13 after his family immigrated to West Hollywood, Calif. For a year, he endured a 50-minute bus ride each way to train at Santa Monica City College, but the long commute drained him of energy and enthusiasm.
But Oleg Krayzelburg told his son, "You have put in so many years in a tough system in the Soviet Union. You can't just quit. You have to continue and complete your journey."
Oleg Krayzelburg has been his son's biggest fan and critic, exhorting him to break world records at every meet. Last night, he was left almost speechless by Lenny's achievement.
"My dream was for Lenny to become an Olympian," he said. "I feel like I was born again tonight."
Krayzelburg dedicated the medal to his parents.
The United States won a second gold medal last night when 16-year-old Megan Quann of Puyallup, Wash., upset the defending Olympic champion Penny Heyns of South Africa in the 100-meter breaststroke. Quann had promised at the U.S. Olympic trials that Heyns was "going down," and youth was served victory in 1 minute 7.05 seconds. Heyns was third in 1:07.55.