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Smith continues to cast a shadow

THERE is something about this story you may have heard before. It's a classic sporting tale of rise and fall which begins in 1996, when a 23-year-old Dutch swimmer called Inge de Bruijn abandons the sport after failing to make the team for the Atlanta Olympics. She takes a year out to find herself, changes her coach and, four years later, delivers one of the greatest performances in Olympic history.

Sound familiar?

Thursday night at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre. She bounces from the podium draped with her second gold medal of the Games and waves to the conclave of orange supporters in the stands.

Officials have chosen `YOU'RE UNBELIEVABLE' as her victory march and rarely has a pop tune sounded more appropriate. Four world records; six Olympic records; a silver medal in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay; and three gold medals in the 100m butterfly, and the 100m and 50m freestyle de Bruijn's performance has been extraordinary this past week.

Prince Willem-Alexander, the son of Queen Beatrix, is waiting to greet her as she exits the pool deck. She moves through the cameras, feeding on the spotlight, and embraces the royal like a long lost friend.

She is front-to-back page news in the Netherlands. On Monday morning, three million people tuned in early to watch her crushing victory in the 100m butterfly. The nation has been gripped by swimming fever. A ticker tape reception awaits.

Sound familiar?

INGE DE BRUIJN was born in Barendrecht and started swimming when she was seven. Her parents were both international water polo players as was her twin sister Jakline. Her younger brother, Matthijs, is also in Sydney with the current Dutch team.

From her debut, de Bruijn showed an ability to race with the best. In 1991 she finished eighth in the final of the 100m butterfly at the World Championships in Perth and a year later, at the Barcelona Olympics, eighth in the final of the 50m freestyle.

Over the next two years, she continued to perform on the periphery of the world stage but struggled to close in on the medals. In 1994, she switched to the PSV club in Eindhoven and started training with Jacco Verhaeren, a modest backstroker with big plans who had just emerged with his coaching diploma. Verhaeren acknowledged her talent but thought her lazy and unmotivated and dropped her from the team before the Atlanta Olympics.

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De Bruijn had reached a cross-roads: 23-years-old, she was swimming slower than she was at 16 and staring at retirement. She took a year out to think about it and decided to try again, and from the moment she returned, began to swim faster.

Sound familiar?

Retaining Jacco as her coach in Holland, she teamed-up in 1998 with the American Paul Bergen, the former coach of the Olympic gold medalist Tracy Caulkins. ``I started doing a lot heavier weight training,'' she explained on Thursday. ``I do rock climbing, I do push-ups, sit-ups, medicine balls, running and biking, swimming with shoes and weight bells. These are the sort of things that I've never done before and they really help me better my body and give me extra strength.''

She became stronger and started winning. She began a relationship with Jacco and started pulverising her times.

The World Short Course Championships in Hong Kong was her first medal success. She won gold in the 50m freestyle, silver in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and fifth in the 100m freestyle. But it wasn't until May of this year that the world began to take note, when she smashed two world records in succession at a minor meet in Sheffield.

In the 100m butterfly, she knocked an astonishing 1.19 seconds off Jenny Thomson's previous best and became only the ninth swimmer since 1950 to break a world 100 metres record by more than a second. Scott Volkers, the Australian who coaches Susan O'Neill, described the swim as ``close to impossible''. ``I can't imagine how you can get a girl to swim that fast.''

But Inge wasn't finished. A day later, she confined China's Le Jingyi to history, when she shaved more than two-tenths off the world 100 freestyle best that had been set by Le in Rome, a month before seven of her Chinese team-mates tested positive for anabolic steroids.

At the ensuing press conference, de Bruijn burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably when it was suggested her performance had stretched credulity. ``I absolutely understand that people think that there is something strange,'' she said, after composing herself. ``I am truly shocked myself.''

She also asked for it to be noted that her name has a `J' in it and that she was in no way connected with Michelle Smith-de Bruin. The `J' was noted but the questions haven't gone away.

SHE has made her way to the press conference now and sits before us beaming, as we await with sharpened pencils. Richard Quick, the US swim team's senior head coach, has turned up the volume on the pool deck whispers. ``I absolutely do not think this is a drug-free Olympics,'' he tells The Australian. ``I am disappointed in the quality and frequency of the testing that's done by the international governing body of the Olympics.''

He refuses to name names but the obvious candidate is Inge: place the graph of her improvement over Michelle Smith's and the curve of progression is almost the same. As we await to open fire, the Dutch team management insist there are to be no questions on doping. ``What was it like to kiss Prince Willem?'' a fawning Dutch reporter inquires.

``He kissed me,'' she smiles.

But the sceptics will not be denied. How do you explain your extraordinary improvement? (She trains smarter.) What gives you such an edge over your rivals? (She has worked hard on her last ``50''.) What do you say to those who question your success? (It doesn't bother her anymore, it's just jealousy.)

Sound familiar?

Jacco Verhaeren watches from the corner of the room. Inge isn't his only success as he also trains the double gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband and seven other members of the team.

Thirty one-years-old, he stands with his arms crossed as the press conference ends, railing against the unfairness of it all. ``It's always doping, doping, doping. It pisses me off,'' he spits, before storming back to the pool.

Cees-Rein van den Hoogenband, father of Pieter and the team's chief medical officer, picks up the baton with a scathing attack on the Americans in general and Richard Quick in particular, referring to the coach as a ``stupid, stupid'' man.

The comparisons being drawn with Michelle Smith, he insists, are completely invalid. ``Inge was always a cham pion,'' he insists. ``She made a final in Barcelona but she was lazy and only interested in having a good time. But she is much stronger now. And has worked so hard for the last four years.''

And as far as his son is concerned, he would, he insists, break both his legs if he thought he was doping.

But wasn't he himself once involved with the Panasonic cycling team?

``No,'' he fumes, ``I am a surgeon and worked with them briefly in 1984 fixing them up when they had crashes and problems but I decided to get out because of all the doping.''

Shouldn't he have mentioned what he had seen?

``Hah,'' he laughs, turning the tables, ``there were a thousand journalists who knew exactly what was going on, but did nothing.''

His emotions cool and we stream back to the press room. The storm has passed for Inge de Bruijn. None of the Dutch journalists are asking questions. She has never gone ``miss ing'' and never failed a dope test. The mood of the nation will not be disturbed.

FOUR years after Atlanta, the spectre of Michelle Smith de Bruin continues to haunt swimming and critics are divided as to whether much has improved. On Wednesday, the most astounding performance of the week, came not from de Bruijn, van den Hoogenband or some of the Italians and Romanians who have also been questioned, but from a lovely, round-faced, 21-year-old, Richard Quick-trained American called Misty Hyman.

When Hyman turned in front, with 50 metres to race in the final of the 200m butterfly, few believed she would hold off the Australian Susie O'Neill. Fading in the final `fifty' was a Misty Hyman trademark. She had raced the first three legs at world record pace. But hold her off she did, exploding with an innocent joy that was wonderful to behold.

That she had just sliced two seconds off her personal best seemed irrelevant. This, we insisted, was a performance to warm the heart, a performance we could believe in until she casually announced to a reporter that she had been working with a new doctor since the summer, and was taking ``like eight million supplements.''

The doctor in question is Glen Luepnitz, a specialist in cancer research from Texas, who is working with a number (Jenny Thomson, Dara Torres) of American swimmers in Sydney. Leupnitz prescribes glutamine, which increases the production of human growth hormone fourfold during the night, while the athlete sleeps, helping the body to absorb more nutrients and maintain a constant weight.

``Other countries are doing something similar but by far the US is leading the world in this endeavour,'' Leupnitz told Craig Lord of The Times. ``We have watched what has happened around us with regard to the cheating of other countries and our goal is to beat the cheaters without doing anything remotely illegal.''

Glutamine is one of several substances Luepnitz has pre scribed. ``I would love to be more specific,'' he says, ``but at this point being extremely specific would be detrimental to the athletes because I believe what I am doing gives them a competitive edge.''

Sound familiar?

John Leonard, the executive director of the American Swim ming Coaches Association, finds the trend very depressing. ``While I believe, overall, that there are fewer rules violations than before, there are more people in the sport manipulating their own human growth hormone. Some of the coaches I have talked to in the last three months are questioning their involvement. It's a vast grey area. They don't ethically know what is right or wrong any more.''

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