It’s 25 years since the swimmer went from Olympic also-ran to multiple champion, but today no one will speak her name . . .
It started on the second Tuesday of January in 1999. The death of the novelist Brian Moore had just been announced; four men had gone on trial that morning at the Special Criminal Court for the murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe; an arctic weather front had enveloped the country for days and was causing havoc on the roads; and at a black-tie function at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin the erasure of the greatest Irish Olympian in history had begun.
It was the first time in four years Michelle Smith de Bruin had not been feted at the Texaco Awards. She sat with her husband, Erik, at a table at the back of the ballroom and looked pensive and withdrawn as the winners were lauded: Sonia O’Sullivan . . . Mark Scanlon . . . Darren Clarke . . . Michael Donnellan . . . Tony McCoy . . . Brian Whelahan . . . Eddie Jordan . . . Derek Ryan . . . Mick Galwey . . . Brian Kerr . . . Kevin Heffernan.
Des Cahill from RTÉ and Dr Kevin O’Flanagan from the IOC were seated at the same table. Erik did most of the talking. Michelle watched the presentations and it was hard not to wonder what was going through her mind as the speeches began. Two years previously, she had been hailed as the ‘Supreme Champion’ and was lavished with a standing ovation after a glowing tribute from the Tánaiste, Dick Spring.
A year later, she was a belle of the ball again after an outstanding performance at the European Championships in Seville. But a few months later a terrible truth had been born; a truth unspoken at the Burlington, but whispered by all.
Everything had changed, changed utterly.
There was no invitation for Smith de Bruin to join the spotlight; no tip of the hat from the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern; no official acknowledgement of her presence in the room because, unofficially, she wasn’t present. Unofficially, she was being nudged into obscurity and not to be spoken of.
And for 22 years that’s how it’s been.
Admission to the pantheon has always brought rewards. For Gary O’Toole, the first Irish swimmer to win a medal at a European Championships, it was a sponsor (Tipperary Water), a sponsored car (Volkswagen) and sponsored business class seats on flights (Delta) to the United States.
That’s how he met Paul McGuinness.
It was October 1991 and he was heading to Florida for a three-month training camp when he noticed the manager of his favourite band, and founder of Principle Management, sitting at a window seat. They started chatting — game recognises game — and had just touched down in Atlanta when McGuinness handed him a card: “If you ever find yourself in a city where the boys are playing, call that number.”
Six months later, O’Toole had just arrived in Phoenix and was sitting in a cab when Where the Streets Have No Name started playing on the radio. “One of the great songs from U2,” the DJ announced. “And if you’re lucky and have a ticket, you can see them for one night only tonight at the ASU.”
It set him thinking.
The Barcelona Olympics were three months away. He would spend one night in Phoenix, five weeks in Flagstaff at a high-altitude training camp, and a month training and racing in Europe at a series of Grand Prix meets. The regime was brutal. His life was eat, sleep, swim.
He got to the hotel and checked into a room. The card was in his wallet. The office was in New York. A woman picked up:
“Hello. My name is Gary O’Toole. I got your number from Mister McGuiness.”
“How can I help?”
“Well, he said if I was ever in town and U2 were playing I was to ring this number.”
“What town is that?”
“So, for tonight?”
“How many tickets?”
“Oh! Could I get two?”
“And your name again, baby?”
“OK, you’re set.”
He wasn’t sure what to expect when they reached the venue that night but the tickets had been left in two lanyards. Row ZZZ suggested the cheapest seats in the house but they were led through two doors and a passageway to the floor of the arena and a small area for VIPs in front of the stage. A support act — The Pixies — had just finished. A DJ was playing songs in a Trabant. Then the lights went out and the place erupted to the stirring beat of Zoo Station, and there was Bono in his leather and his shades (“I’m ready for the laughing gas”) looking down on Gary O’Toole and his fellow VIP guest, Michelle Smith.
Even though the organisers persisted in spelling his name with two ‘Ls’ throughout the championships it mattered not when Gary O’Toole’s name appeared once more at the head of the giant electronic scoreboard in the European swimming championships, concluded in Bonn last evening. There could not have been a more fitting choice to break the 25th Irish record set in these championships and in doing so O’Toole took first place in the consolation final over 200 metres individual medley . . .
Shayne Gordon, a clubmate of O’Toole’s at Trojan, also qualified for a consolation final — the 200 metres butterfly. She clipped over two seconds off the long-standing time by King’s Hospital’s Miriam Hopkins with two minutes 18.09 seconds when finishing fifth in the morning heats and 11th overall. In the B final she finished fifth and was again inside the record, this time going two minutes 17.74 seconds.
The Irish Times,
August 21, 1989
Shayne Gordon was destined to swim. On the day she was born, August 28, 1972, her parents were juggling with a set of names for her at St Michael’s in Dún Laoghaire when the latest from the Munich Olympics was beamed to the room. A 15-year-old called Shane Gould had just won a gold medal in the pool for Australia. And that was it.
“What an unusual name for a girl!”
Kids don’t like unusual; they want ordinary names and conventional clothes and stuff that goes unnoticed at school. Shayne hated Shane. “It tormented me for years,” she says. “Everywhere I went: ‘Isn’t that a boy’s name? Did your parents want a boy? Were they disappointed to have a girl?’
“Then, because of swimming, my hair was always short and people thought I was a bloke: ‘Oh, that’s a lovely boy.’ I was like, ‘For f**k sake!’ (laughs). So when I was 11 or 12 my dad suggested I add a ‘y’. ‘It will make it a bit more feminine looking,’ he said.”
Sean Gordon owned a construction machinery business and grew up in Fairview on Dublin’s northside. Joan Wilkinson, a sister of Colm, was one of 10 singing siblings from Rathmines. They spent their first years together in Blackrock and moved to Saggart when Shayne — an only child — was four.
Her first school, St Mary’s National, was a short walk along the Mill Road but her parents wanted her to speak Irish and moved her shortly afterwards to a Gaelscoil. And it was here, at Scoil Chrónáin in the neighbouring village of Rathcoole, that she first befriended Sarah Jane Smith and her older sister, Michelle.
The girls had a lot in common: devoted parents, similar backgrounds, and, soon, a gift for the same sport. Shayne was petrified of the water — “so much for being called after Shane Gould!” — until her mother drove her to Palmerstown one afternoon and the pool at King’s Hospital.”
Shayne was six-and-a-half years old and entered the water clinging to her mum with two armbands on. Within a week, it was one armband; then her mother got out and she managed a whole width on her own. The buzz has never left her. “I think the next time it felt that good was the European Championships in Bonn,” she says.
It was swimming that forged her relationship with Michelle.
“I joined the junior team in King’s Hospital at the age of seven; Michelle is three years older and was on the senior team. I was in Saggart; she was in Rathcoole, and we shared lifts. My father and Brian Smith used to have great crack together and her mum, Pat, was always very kind to me. So we were in each other’s lives a lot, really; I practically lived in her house, and she practically lived in mine.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late July. She is sitting in the kitchen of her home in Co Kilkenny, reflecting on the moment in 1989 when her boyfriend, Gary O’Toole, won a silver medal at the European Championships. She was poolside that afternoon and watched the race with the coach, George Gibney, and the rest of the Irish team.
“It was magic,” she says. “I still remember it to this day. Gary was a super talented swimmer with a great work ethic and he got his reward in Bonn.
“It was a surge of . . . just brilliance,” she says. “We were all delighted for him and leppin’ around the place, and I was doubly delighted because we were going out at that stage. We laughed about it afterwards. I said, ‘Only for you I might at least have got my name in the paper!’”
Gordon did make the paper. She had broken the 100m and 200m butterfly records, and performed best of the Irish women. To celebrate, she grabbed a poster — ‘SCHWIMM-EUROPAMEISTERSCHAFTEN’ 12-20 AUGUST 1989 BONN — had it signed by her teammates and stuck it in a frame that still hangs on a wall at home. “I think that’s the one you’re looking for there,” she says, pointing to one of the scribbles: “Well done bud, lots of love Michelle.”
One of the most obvious physical factors that gives swimmers a distinct advantage in the pool is height . . . The average height of the 2016 Olympic finalists in Rio was six feet two inches (1.884m) for men and five feet nine inches (1.755m) for women, both of which are substantially higher than the average human.
Michelle Smith wasn’t built for swimming. She had small hands and small feet and was short at 5ft 3in. One of her first coaches at King’s Hospital told her father Michelle would never make it. Middling talent. Wrong physique. But who was going to tell her?
“Is it about talent or hard work? Opinions differ,” Gordon says. “She obviously had some talent but the thing that always stood out for me was how hard she worked. I remember a coach saying once: ‘When you come to the last five metres don’t stop, swim through the wall.’ That was Michelle, tough – she would swim through that wall.”
By her 14th birthday in December of 1984, Smith had won a gazillion national junior titles and her first national senior title in the 200m backstroke. By the U2 gig in Phoenix, she had been a senior national champion 27 times and was about to become only the second female swimmer to represent Ireland at two Olympiads.
O’Toole was at another level. By his 13th birthday in August of 1981, he had won four gold medals at a British Championships — a first by an Irish kid — and six golds at an international meet in West Germany. By the summer of 1992, he had won a World Student Games, taken a silver at the Europeans and gone to number four in the world rankings.
The chemistry between them was interesting. O’Toole can’t remember a time when Smith wasn’t around but they were never particularly close. “There was baggage there,” he says. “She swam for King’s Hospital, I swam for Trojan, and there was very little social interaction between the two clubs. It was very competitive, and there was a great rivalry between the coaches.
“She was competing in women’s events, I was competing in men’s, and it’s not like you’re seeking people out and trying to form friendships. It was only when we went away on Leinster or Ireland trips that I got to know her a little bit.
“She didn’t make the ’86 World Championships, or the ’87 European Championships, but came on strongly to make the ’88 Olympic Games and I think we spent about four months together that summer at training camps. So that was my first real sense of what she was like. She integrated well into the team and was fun to be around.”
Gordon loved her.
“She had a good sense of humour and was a really loyal friend — thoughtful and very generous,” she says. “I remember she came back from Seoul and surprised me with a gorgeous jacket, a kind of white satin with flags from all the countries and my name embroidered in joined writing. That was typical of her. I cherished it.”
Smith was 18 years old in Seoul. She had taken a year out from school to train full time in Canada and was rewarded with the best performance of her career — a 17th place finish in the 400m medley and a new Irish record. The reporting was harsh. The Irish Times misspelt her name (Michele Smyth) and weren’t impressed: “It wasn’t remotely good enough to earn her a place in the final.”
That wasn’t quite how Smith saw it.
“The biggest regret — the only regret — I have from Seoul is the 400 metre individual medley,” she said in her autobiography, Gold. “Now it doesn’t seem a big deal to qualify for a B final; but back then that would have been seen as a real breakthrough. I was so close and yet so far in the heat. That was the soul-destroying part of it. But aside from that disappointment, I enjoyed every minute of Seoul.”
She went back to school the following year and secured an all-honours Leaving Certificate but flunked at the European Championships in Bonn. She accepted a swimming scholarship at the University of Houston, made a B final (6th) in the 400m medley at the 1991 World Championships, then went back to Canada to prepare for the Olympics.
That’s how she saw U2.
“She was flying in from Calgary,” O’Toole recalls. “I’d got to Phoenix a couple of hours before and we were driving up to Flagstaff the next day for a training camp. I said, ‘Do you want to come to a U2 concert tonight?’ ‘Absolutely,’ she said, but there was no question of going for a drink or making a ‘night’ of it.
“Athletes have a different mindset; they go to the concert, it finishes, and they go home and go to bed. So it was very disciplined and she always had that about her; great work ethic; trained exceptionally hard; never wimped out of the more difficult sessions. And she was good company and pleasant to be around. So it was a good night, and probably as close as we had ever been.”
Three months later, they travelled to Barcelona.
The Irish swimmers were sunk without trace in the magnificent Barcelona pool yesterday. Even after four extra years of training and financial support, the performances of Gary O’Toole and Michelle Smith were still no better than Seoul.
O’Toole, admittedly competing in the weaker of his two events, was never in the hunt in the 100 metre breastroke. The 23-year-old Bray medical student finished 38th out of the 58 who contested the eight heats, returning a time of 65.48 seconds — disappointingly adrift of his 64.40 Irish record.
Smith, competing in her strongest event, the 400 metre individual medley, could finish only 26th of the 32 women engaged. And her time did not give her much consolation either. She clocked 4:58.94 in finishing third in her heat, which left her more than two and a half seconds short of her national record and a full 16 seconds slower than the fastest qualifier, Kristina Egerszegi of Hungary.
A bitterly disappointed Smith, who has not had a single break in training since last October, said: “I felt really well and genuinely thought I would make the B final . . . I think I was trying too hard and it never flowed.”
Smith was always struggling to keep pace with the New Zealander, Philippa Langrell and then in the final freestyle section was overtaken by the South African, Jeannine Steenkamp, to be relegated to third place. By then, it was a hopeless case.
July 27, 1992
Erik de Bruin lifted the bar to his shoulders and began to take the strain. It was a week after the Barcelona Olympics and the 29-year-old Dutchman was squatting with some weights in the shed that doubled for a gym at his home in Hardinxveld.
He trained twice a day, every day, 11 months of the year. Every morning at 9.0, he would take a discus to the field and throw for two hours. Every afternoon at 2.0, he would retreat to the shed and complete a session of weights.
A session consisted of eight sets; a set consisted of ten repetitions. After the fifth set, he vomited his guts into the toilet. After the seventh, he blacked out for half a minute on the floor. He didn’t panic. This happened a lot. He grabbed a towel and wiped his face and resumed lifting.
The final set was always the hardest. He often used the same technique. Placing the weight on his shoulder, he would imagine that a rival, Wolfgang Schmidt, was standing opposite, because the slightest thought of that German son of a bitch always gave him strength.
He gritted his teeth and dipped his knees and pushed the bar skywards. The shed almost vibrated with the roar: “Shit! Sheisse! Schmidt!” It was 4.0 in the afternoon. His work for the day was done.
An hour and a half later he sat down to dinner. His hands were trembling as he reached for the knife and fork. His legs ached with fatigue. A satisfied smile washed across his lips. This is why they called him The Rock.
Throwing was in his blood. His mother, Anneke, was a seven-time Dutch shot put champion and had set a national record for discus. His father, Barend, a retired teacher, was a coach. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, De Bruin finished eighth in the shot and ninth in the discus. At the 1988 Games in Seoul he was ninth again, throwing only discus.
Then he made some changes.
He dropped his father as his coach, travelled to Guadaloupe and started working with Henk Kraaijenhof, a performance consultant with interesting views on supplements and nutrition.
Then he started to improve: a silver at the 1989 World Student Games (he was studying to be a teacher); a silver at the 1990 European Championships; a silver at the 1991 World Championships; and gold every time the late Hans Van Wissen — a journalist with de Volkskrant — sought his views:
“I am not somebody who lets himself be pushed in a certain direction. If the majority turn right, then I turn left. I used to get screwed for it. But how many people read the paper? How many read the sport section? And how many of those would actually be interested in Erik de Bruin or remember what I said? And even if they did, and objected to it, would it bother me? The answer is no.
“In the past I used to be shy, except in the discus ring. I am still reserved in company, maybe even suspicious. People say hello to me because I happen to be good at throwing the discus. That is no concern of mine. You can always act the nice, sweet, guy, but I did not choose the stage. To avoid bullshit I used to be quite diplomatic but then you reach the point when you get sick of that.
“Often I need opposition to psyche myself up. During the European Championships Schmidt was very unpleasant. That is not how one should behave with me, as it will have the opposite effect. The more they oppose me, the better. I was really in my element. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
“I like giving someone a good beating, not literally of course. A chess player was asked recently what it was like to win. You can, of course, start laughing as he did and say, ‘It’s no big deal. You win today and someone else wins tomorrow.’ But then he admitted that he absolutely hated losing. That’s how it is with me.
“I can well imagine that [Ben] Johnson took a dose of stanozolol — it was his way to get himself out of a miserable situation. As far as I am concerned Johnson remains the prime athlete of the Seoul [Olympics]. He performed incredibly and fantastically. I don’t care what way he achieved this.”
The evening shadows were starting to lengthen. The Rock finished his dinner and sat down to study a video of the session that morning. The art of throwing discus is as technical as the golf swing and he was annoyed by some flaws in his movement and fluency.
Then the phone rang. A call from Dublin. The girl from Barcelona.
Love is blindness, I don’t wanna see
Won’t you wrap the night around me?
Oh, my heart
Love is blindness
In a parked car in a crowded street
You see your love made complete
Thread is ripping, the knot is slipping
Love is blindness
Love is Blindness
The final song played at the
U2 concert in April, 1992
On the eve of the opening ceremony in Barcelona the Olympic Council of Ireland announced that for the first time ever a woman would carry the flag. Michelle Smith was thrilled. “It is an absolutely tremendous honour,” she said. “I hope to do my family and my country justice, to lead the Irish team into the Olympic Stadium will be a memory to treasure forever.”
There was just one snag: her best event, the 400m individual medley, was the following morning. In Seoul she had opted to rest and watched the parade on TV. Something had changed. “I wouldn’t have done it,” O’Toole says, ‘but I think in her own mind — and I’m surmising here — she had decided, ‘This is it. I’m not going to be back at another Olympics again.’”
It was also the last hurrah for O’Toole. He had spent his life dreaming about Olympic glory and put a promising career in medicine on hold, but could not repeat the heroics of Bonn. “I’m always amused when I hear words like ‘death’ and ‘devastating’ used in sport,” he says, “but yeah, it was devastating. I found it very, very difficult to deal with.”
Smith was handling it better. She had met a guy in the Olympic village and invited O’Toole to join them one evening at a bar on the Ramblas. “I don’t take an instant dislike to people but I found Erik to be instantly dislikeable,” he says. “I got the impression he was looking down his nose at me and was tut-tutting anything I said.
“Part of it, and I know I’m generalising here, is the Dutch demeanour; they can be pretty direct and abrasive at times, and expect the same in return, but I didn’t feel comfortable from the moment I sat down. I was still hurting and didn’t want to spend time with someone who was sucking the lifeblood out of me, so I left after a beer.”
There was Champagne served on the flight back to Dublin. A boxer, Michael Carruth, had won Ireland’s first gold medal for 36 years; another, Wayne McCullough, had taken a silver; O’Toole raised a glass to them from a couple of rows back and was struck by a painful truth: ‘They’ve got the medals. We’ve got the baggage.’
It was almost midnight when the flight touched down. A bank of reporters and photographers had formed at a gangway close to the terminal; a couple of thousand people with flags and banners and T-shirts promoting ‘Corporal Punishment’ — a pun on Carruth’s job with the army — were waiting inside.
An announcement was made as they were about to disembark: Michael and Wayne would be going out the front door; the rest of the team would be going out the back. The losers exit. “It took me a long time to unravel from that,” O’Toole says. “I was in a terrible place for weeks.”
Smith was done crying. She told her parents she was retiring, spent 10 days touring Ireland with her new boyfriend and returned to the University of Houston to resume her degree. It didn’t last. By December she was back in Ireland swimming again.
“I went back to America but to be fair, university never stood a chance,” she says in Gold. “Something deep inside wanted me to go home, to be with Erik, to be together as a couple. He had started to ask questions about my swimming, about my coaching, about my ambition. I knew he could help me. I knew we should be together.
“That winter I opted out of my university course, flew to Holland and then Erik and I moved to Ireland. Until that time, I had never even mentioned a boy’s name in my parents’ company; but I rang them from America to tell them I was coming home to live with my Dutch boyfriend. I’m sure I heard my mother’s jaw hit the floor . . .”
To whom it may concern
Shayne Gordon, Irish International Swimmer, has represented her country at both Junior and Senior level. She has also represented her country as a Schools International on several occasions.
Shayne represented Ireland in the last European Championships in Bonn, Germany in 1989. Her remarkable achievements there included a place in the consolation final of the 400 metres Individual Medley, a place in the consolation final of the 200 metres Butterfly, and she also swam on the Irish ladies team in the final of the 4 by 200 metres Freestyle Relay.
This year Shayne’s training programme has been curtailed due to her Leaving Certificate requirements. She has resumed full training and is currently attending an intensive swimming camp at the University of Arizona.
When setting qualifying standards for the 1992 Olympics the Olympic Council indicated that they were only interested in sending competitors who had a realistic chance of making a final. Shayne’s 200m Butterfly time is 8 tenths of a second off these very stiff qualifying standards.
With the exception of Gary O’Toole, who has already been pre-selected for the Olympic Games, her time makes her the closest of all other Irish swimmers to these qualifying standards. With this tough but obviously attainable goal in mind, Shayne wishes to devote the next year to full time training with a view to qualifying and representing her country in the Olympic Games.
I regard her as an excellent prospect and have every confidence in her ability to achieve these goals. To do so it will be necessary for her, over the next twelve months, to travel abroad for top class competition and to avail of training in a 50 metre pool, which regrettably is not available in this country.
We would very much appreciate sponsorship to enable her to fulfil her competitive and training programme and her eventual goal of swimming for Ireland in the Olympic Games.
Glenalbyn Club Coach
A letter, July 15, 1991
There are few things as destructive as the unguarded thought. That’s what broke Shayne. It was a Tuesday afternoon in late May of 1992 at the Guinness pool on Watling Street. The menu was butterfly and freestyle — 320 lengths — with a pull buoy for drag between her legs. Chalkie watched from the deck with a stopwatch and clipboard:
“That’s good, Shayne!”
“Keep going, Shayne!”
She had been keeping it going for 13 years. Up and down. Morning and afternoon. Six hours a day. Six days a week. Eat. Sleep. Swim. Repeat. And the stuff people had no clue about — the loss of all your senses in the pool. You can’t see properly. Hear properly. Smell properly. Taste properly. And it can be the loneliest place in the world.
But she was okay with that. She was an only child and didn’t mind being on her own. And she was good enough to go to the Olympics — that’s what they all told her from day one:
“You’ve got the talent, Shayne.”
“You’ll get there, Shayne.”
“Not Seoul, Shayne.”
There was a story in the paper she was trying not to think about. That’s another thing about swimming. It’s not good to think. Her brilliant swim at the European Championships had felt like an out-of-body experience; she was not in the water, she was the water. She could feel it and grip it with her hands and the stroke was almost effortless.
The water was her friend.
But it was an enemy if you started to think and she could feel it pulling her down. She was thinking about that f*****g creep, Derry O’Rourke:
“You’ve got the talent, Shayne.”
She was thinking about that sadistic bastard, George Gibney:
“You’ll get there, Shayne.”
She was thinking about the headline that morning in the paper: ‘Time running out for Olympic hopefuls’.
She started to cry.
Chalkie dropped the clipboard and came running to the steps. She had swallowed half the pool and was coughing and sobbing her eyes out.
“What’s wrong, Shayne?”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“No, it’s OK. Everything will be OK.”
“IT’S NOT OK, CHALKIE! I’m getting out. I’m done.”
She never went back.
Michelle called a few days later. They kept in touch through the summer and again over the winter when Michelle left Houston and arrived home with Erik. “They were renting a room or something in Celbridge,” Gordon says. “She used to ring me from there and sounded madly in love. Besotted. She had met the love of her life and I was really happy for her.”
Then the calls became less frequent and the relationship started to drift.
Shayne had a life to build. She took a diploma course in anatomy and physiology at the University of Limerick, took a job with the Tallaght Sports Complex and set up the Sportslink gym for the civil service in Santry. She had slammed the door on swimming.
“It was almost a survival instinct,” she says. “I didn’t watch it on TV. I didn’t read about it. I was allergic to people even speaking about it. I just didn’t want to go there again.”
But a friend is a friend.
She had taken a job in Kilkenny, managing the leisure centre at Mount Juliet, on the night Michelle won her first gold medal in Atlanta, and remembers sitting on the floor of her apartment in Thomastown and bursting into tears.
“I was just overwhelmed with joy for her,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Michelle! I was so happy for her.”
Then, a moment later, she was struck by a conflicting thought.