The Book On: Swimming

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Outside magazine, August 1996

The Book On: Swimming

A skeptical world can’t help but ask: will the Chinese women come clean?
By Gretchen Reynolds

In the history of competitive aquatics, no team has ever been so reviled as China’s female swimmers. Arriving at the 1993 short-course world championships with neither records nor recognition, the suspiciously buff team left draped in medals and notoriety. Within two years, seven squad members tested positive for steroid use and were banned from international competition,
leaving the rest of the team to sink ignominiously beneath the waves.

Now they’re back. The Chinese women who will show up this summer are mostly unknowns, but thanks to their familiar musculature, doubts still linger. “If they do well, of course there will be questions about drug use,” says Charlie Snyder, spokesperson for U.S. Swimming. The one known quantity on the Chinese team is Jingyi Le, who after tanking in
1994 came back to sweep the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events at the 1995 worlds. Asked about her resurgence, Jingyi’s coaches pointed to that old training-table standby, caterpillar fungus.

Jingyi’s recent success and wonder diet notwithstanding, the home-field advantage could give 23-year-old American Amy Van Dyken–who has the year’s fastest sprint times behind Jingyi–the push she needs to capture the 50 and the 100. German powerhouse Franziska Van Almsick, 18, is the likely candidate for a bronze.

The women’s 800-meter event will be an all-American affair. Three-time Olympian Janet Evans, who at 24 already owns four golds and a silver, will be pushed by 16-year-old upstart Brooke Bennett, who once boasted that her elder rival was “scared” of her. Evans shot back, “I’m not impressed,” and then trounced Bennett at
the Olympic trials. Look for Evans to prove that, at the Games, experience usually bests ego.

In the men’s events, American Gary Hall Jr. , a goofy blond sprint specialist, is poised to assume Matt Biondi’s swim-hunk mantle. But Hall could easily get aced out of a medal altogether by strong challenges from defending world champion Alexander Popov of Russia, Gustavo Borges of
Brazil, and American Jon Olsen.

A lock for a medal of some color is Tom Dolan, 20, world-record holder in the grueling 400-meter individual medley. But Finland’s favorite son, Jani Sievinen, has more international experience than Dolan and could edge him out in a close final.

Meanwhile Australia could tally more swimming medals than any other country. The Aussie to watch is Kieren Perkins, world-record holder in the men’s 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle, who should stomp all comers in both events.

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