SWIMNEWS ONLINE: August 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

Had she tried, Michelle Smith could not have made more waves at the Olympic pool.

The 26-year-old swimmer from Ireland was the centre of controversy from the moment she won her first-and Ireland's first-gold medal, in the 400 individual medley on July 20. Following her win Smith was questioned at length about her rapid improvement at such a late age (a three-time Olympian, Smith had never placed better than 17 th at an Olympic Games), and the air at the Aquatic Centre was rife with suspicion.

Smith was calm and well-spoken during press conferences, explaining her performance as "the culmination of three and a half years of work. I've been building and building up to this and I only started to see the results in January of last year when I won the World Cup...obviously this is the highlight."

The three and a half years coincided with her meeting Erik de Bruin, the Dutch shot and discus record-holder in 1993. Smith left Ireland and went to Holland to train in Hardinxveld (near Rotterdam) with de Bruin, and the two were married three months before the Olympics.

Coming from a track and field perspective, de Bruin claims that he changed Smith's training to resemble an athlete's training: more rest, more power, and more speed work. He also put her on a high protein diet, which has made her significantly leaner and more muscular.

"Everybody who comes to the Olympic Games has trained hard, but I also think that I train smart," said Smith. "A lot of that is because of my husband's background in track and field. He's come into a new sport and in three years has managed to produce an Olympic gold medal and I think that's a great accomplishment for him."

The fact that de Bruin is currently serving a four-year ban for a positive drug test didn't add credence to Smith's statements. In what was a first-rate example of guilt by association, the circumstances surrounding her rise to the top only fanned the flames of speculation.

All hell broke loose, however, when it was announced that Smith would be allowed to swim the 400 freestyle, an event for which she had qualified on July 7 at a meet during her training camp in Fort Lauderdale. Technically, the deadline for an Olympic entry was July 5, and according to FINA rules she could not swim the event. But Smith had posted the fastest time in the world (4:08.64) and she claimed that the Olympic Council of Ireland had been given the wrong deadline date. An IOC arbitration panel overruled FINA's decision and at the last minute Smith's name went onto the heat sheet, much to the disgust of many coaches and swimmers.

The U.S., together with Germany and the Netherlands, lodged a formal protest, but to no avail. Coaches complained that rules are rules, and that FINA did not support their position. Smith criticized protestors for their lack of "spirit of fair play."

She then went on to swim the 400 freestyle preliminaries, knocking U.S. veteran Janet Evans out of the final. Later in a press conference, Evans was asked about the possibility of Smith's using performance-enhancing drugs. "I think anytime a person in any country has a dramatic improvement, there is that question," she said.

Long Course progression		

				LCM96	95	94	93	92	91

		  at Olympics	In-season

50  FREESTYLE		-	-	26.20	-	-	-	-
100  FREESTYLE		-	-	57.86	-	-	-	-
200  FREESTYLE		-		2:00.71	2:05.16	-	-	-	
400  FREESTYLE		4:07.25	4:08.64	-	-	-	-	-
100  BACKSTROKE		-	-	1:05.56	-	-	-	-
200  BACKSTROKE		-	2:17.93	-	-	2:20.29	-	2:18.93	
100  BUTTERFLY		-		1:02.15	1:00.59	1:02.10	-	-
200  BUTTERFLY		2:09.91	2:14.68	2:11.60	2:12.79	-	-	-
200  IND.MEDLEY		2:13.93	2:17.60	2:15.27	2:19.48	-	2:23.83	-
400  IND.MEDLEY		4:39.18	4:52.45	4:42.81	4:47.89	4:57.17	4:58.94	4:56.52	

Smith's reaction was to win the gold medal again that evening-her second of the meet-in a time of 4:07.25. When asked if she was surprised at all the rumours circulating about her, she said, "Maybe disappointed is the word I would use, because I've worked very, very hard for this and put my heart and soul into it for the last 3 1/2 years. I quit university to train, I've trained 6 days a week, 6 hours a day. All I do is eat and eat and train."

When asked if all the controversy was affecting her she said, "No, not really. I'm a fighter so when people put obstacles in my way, it just makes me more determined. I think it helped me."

She also pointed out that Evans' insinuations were out of line-Evans swam to a gold medal in the 400 freestyle in Seoul in the world record time of 4:03.85. She swam much faster than Smith, and yet Evans maintains she was drug-free. Smith postulated that if she herself were on drugs, surely she should be swimming faster than a 4:07.

Michelle SMITH
HEIGHT 5 ft. 4 in. / 162 cm
WEIGHT 128 lbs / 58 kg
HOME Hardinxveld,NED
REPRESENTS The Kings Hospital
COACH Erik de Bruin (husband)
96 Olympics 1st 400 free 4:07.25, 1st 400 IM 4:39.18
96 Olympics 1st 200 IM 2:13.93, 3rd 200 fly 2:09.91
95 Europeans 1st 200 fly 2:11.60, 1st 200 IM 2:15.27
95 Europeans 2nd 400 IM 4:42.81
94 Worlds 5th 200 fly 2:12.79, 9th 400 IM 4:47.89

While that shut up the relentless reporters at the press conference, no one thought to mention that Evans was 16 years old when she swam her 4:03. Now 24, she was hard pressed to make the finals, and was a long way from her best times. Smith is 26 and improving at an alarming rate (she swam national records in every event), which is highly unusual in the longer events. According to coaches, that kind of breakthrough is unprecedented.

There are other holes in Smith's straight-faced defense. She claims she has been tested for drugs more times than she can remember and yet FINA has no evidence to support that claim. Who has done the testing and where, no one seems to know. It is even rumoured that every time FINA calls up the Irish Federation to pin-point Smith's whereabouts, by the time testers arrive Smith has disappeared.

Smith also claimed that her husband had been reinstated after his disqualification for drug use, but apparently neglected to tell the whole truth. De Bruin was reinstated by the Dutch Federation after it was decided there had been an irregularity in the testing procedure (which does not mean the test was negative either). But the International Amateur Athletics Federation renewed the four-year ban and he remains officially suspended.

And yet, Americans who claim Smith "came out of nowhere" have obviously not done their research. When she won two gold medals at last summer's European Championships in Vienna, Smith's European competitors knew she would be in the running in Atlanta. The aggressive finger-pointing of the American press came off as embarrassing sour grapes. After all, Smith's winning time in the 400 IM would not have won a medal in 1992.

Reason to cheer, Michelle Smith celebrates third gold medal
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Smith ignored the newspapers (she read none of them) and went on to win her third gold medal in the 200 IM, although there was speculation on deck in the morning that she was considering scratching from the event. It was mere wishful thinking, however, as Smith qualified 7th for the final. Again, her winning time of 2:13.93 would not have medalled in 1992. Defending champion and world record-holder Li Lin of China was third in 2:14.74. At 25, Lin is clearly past her prime.

During the press conference Smith said, "I considered not swimming this event yesterday because I have the 200 butterfly in two days run. I decided to swim the heats this morning; when I saw the times were not that spectacular, I thought I had a good chance and that I should go for it."

On the final night of competition, critics were rabidly anticipating the results of Smith's drug tests, certain that she would be caught and the whole mystery brought to light.

Not a chance. Smith did have a mishap before her 200 butterfly final, however, as her goggles snapped in the ready room. When the finalists were marched onto the deck, Smith was not among them. After trying without success to find her husband, she quickly borrowed a pair of goggles from a Dutch swimmer and appeared, no doubt a little shaken, to swim her last race. This time she could only manage a bronze.

"It wasn't really me in the first 100 metres," she said later, "Normally I'm out a little bit faster. It took me a while to get into the race and I didn't ever catch up."

Was she relieved that it was all over?

"No, I'm sad it's over because I've really enjoyed all the racing," Smith said, then choked up when she added, "This has been the greatest week of my life." One journalist asked her a question in Gaelic, and the mood lightened when Smith replied in kind.

"He just wanted to know what Bill Clinton asked me," she translated.

"He just told me he admired what I'd done this week in all my races and he said 'I also like the way you've handled the way the press have thrown all that crap at you.' He said 'we've had to deal with that ourselves, we know what it's like.' "

Despite that humorous slant, many doubts remain. With no positive tests, there is nothing to go on, and yet if Smith were on drugs, it is unlikely she would test positive at the Olympics. She's too intelligent for that. Some feel she should quit now, while she is ahead, that if she continues she will be tripped up, like her husband. And yet she says she plans to go to Perth in 1998. She will be 28.

What is to stop her? The iron-willed Smith has already made history in Ireland, and even if her federation were protecting her, the recognition they have gained through her success will have been worth it. But FINA has her on its hit list, and she most certainly knows it. No matter what, she has to be careful.

But back on the Emerald Isle, they couldn't care less about all of that. The pubs were open non-stop after Smith's first gold medal, and there was even talk of having a national holiday to welcome home the red-haired heroine who took the Americans by storm. By now any controversy is just a bunch of blarney.

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