U.S. swim team rides wave of dominance in Australia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - When Australia upset the United States in the men's 400-meter freestyle relay on the opening night of the Olympic swimming competition last weekend, Australian swimmer Michael Klim couldn't help himself. He strummed an air guitar as he celebrated on the pool deck, mocking U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr.'s pre-Games prediction that the Americans would "smash" the Aussies "like guitars."

The walls of the Sydney International Aquatic Centre shook with noise that night as Australia's Ian Thorpe won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle and then came back an hour later to anchor the winning relay. Operating on their home turf with a stable of medal challengers, Australia seemed poised to make good on Australian coach Don Talbot's subtle but unmistakable implications about possibly toppling the U.S. swimming powerhouse.

The swimming competition ended yesterday with another high moment of Australian glory - Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins finishing 1-2 in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle, the event Australia was most excited about in the entire Games, along with Aboriginal track star Cathy Freeman's run for gold next week.

But in between the first and last strokes of the weeklong meet, the frenzied Australian crowd often had to mute its cheers at the sight of another American touching the wall first and winning a gold medal. As the noise died out night after night, it took only a bit of imagination to hear a sound filling the void: the sound of a guitar being smashed as a deeper, better U.S. team turned Hall, the "trash-talking Yank," into a prophet.

Final tally: 14 swimming gold medals for the United States, five for Australia. Thirty-three overall swimming medals for the United States, 18 for Australia.

Any questions?

"I'm speechless," Hall said after he won his second gold medal yesterday, anchoring a men's 400 medley relay team that won gold to Australia's silver and set a world record in the process.

Not that the Aussies swam poorly. That wasn't the case at all. Thorpe, Hackett and "Madame Butterfly," Susie O'Neill, all won gold medals under the crushing weight of their country's win-or-else expectations, and the team's medal count was the highest for a non-U.S. team since the breakup of the East German dynasty that used to dominate the Olympics.

That's quite a showing from a country of 19 million people, some 247 million fewer than the United States.

"The Australians are good, really good," U.S. swimmer Josh Davis said yesterday. "They pushed us to do better."

But in the end, the Aussies just couldn't match the Americans' depth and overall ability in a remarkable meet, with world records falling routinely and swimmers from 10 countries winning gold medals.

The Aussies had no answer for U.S. favorites, such as Lenny Krayzelburg, Tom Malchow, Brooke Bennett and Megan Quann, and the disparity only widened when American underdogs, such as Misty Hyman and Hall, came through and won golds, beating Aussies in the process.

And to think, before it all started, that there was serious talk about a U.S.-Aussie "dual meet" developing. Remember when Talbot said the Aussies would need help from other countries if they were going to rise up and knock off the Americans?

Sounds silly now. But not as silly as Olympic legend Mark Spitz, who suggested before the Games that the U.S. women might not win a single gold medal in an individual event.

Spitz is a better swimmer than forecaster.

"Mark should have known better," U.S. star Jenny Thompson said yesterday after swimming a leg on the women's 400 medley relay, which also won a gold medal and set a world record in the process.

Basically, everyone should have known better than to suggest that the Australians, as talented as they are, had the depth to topple the U.S. team.

Especially this U.S. team.

"The feeling [on the team] was so much better here than in Atlanta," said Amy Van Dyken, who won two gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. "I don't know what it was, but we all got along really well and supported each other. There was a great sense of togetherness."

Added Josh Davis: "The thing that encourages swimmers above all else is swimming fast. And everyone was swimming so fast here and setting records and all, that it kind of became contagious."

The signature moment for the United States came Wednesday night when Hyman upset O'Neill, a national hero and heavy favorite, in the women's 200-meter butterfly. The Australian media had already ceded the race to O'Neill, the defending Olympic champion.

Then the off-the-wall Hall won a gold in the men's 50-meter freestyle Friday night - he tied for first with teammate Anthony Ervin - to silence a crowd that, like Klim, had delighted in mocking him.

Actually, the Australian crowd was generous in supporting swimmers from all countries as the week wore on. Swimming is the No. 1 item on Australia's Olympic agenda. This is one of the few places in the world where the sport is front-page news even in non-Olympic years.

Hall and the rest of yesterday's winning relay team held up a banner thanking the crowd, and the crowd cheered back - a salute to the U.S. swimmer they'd mocked.

"Gary didn't make any gestures or play to the crowd or anything," Davis said. "He just won and walked away."

As if, in the end, anything else needed to be said.

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