HAVANA -- Brandy Wood polished her nails red, white and blue. She laced up her sneakers for a brief, nervous walk. She took a few deep breaths to get rid of her stage fright and headed out on to a warm, crowded pool deck.
"I've never been in a big international meet before," said Wood, a 17-year-old from Lutherville, Md. "I really wanted to get a medal."
Wood plunged into the world of big-time swimming and became part of the cavalry charge that rescued the sinking United States team at the Pan American Games last night.
She won a bronze medal in the women's 400-meter individual medley as the United States swept the first five swimming events. After more than a week of Cuban domination in track and field and weightlifting, the other U.S. athletes were looking to the swimmers to restore a competitive edge.
"There was a lot of pressure on us," Wood said. "We've talked about it a lot. Some of us went out to see the Greco-Roman wrestling. When the Cubans won their matches, the crowds went crazy, and people started running around with flags. We weren't all that showy. We had to start winning."
The best U.S. swimmers skipped the Pan Am Games to train for the Pan Pacific meet to be held later this month in Edmonton, Alberta. But the team assembled in Havana should still be strong enough and talented enough to dominate.
The United States started strong last night, with 16-year-old Ashley Tappin winning the 100 freestyle in 56.51 seconds, and 18-year-old Megan Oesting finishing second in 57.14. The outcome enabled the United States to pass three swimming mileposts at the Pan Am games: 200 women's medals, 400 overall medals and 100 1-2 finishes.
Other U.S. gold-medal winners were Hans Dersch in the 100-meter breast stroke (1:02.57), Amy Shaw in the 400 IM (4:50.39), Eric Diehl in the 200 freestyle (1:49.67) and the women's 800 freestyle relay team (8:11.47).
And Jeff Commings, 17, of St. Louis became the first black American swimmer to win a medal in the Pan American Games, when he took a bronze medal in the 100-meter breast stroke.
The overflow crowd that wedged its way into the Pan Am pool complex roared during the races and waved Cuban flags. The fans even cheered the American triumphs.
"Whenever you go to different competitions, you can't expect the crowd to be behind you like in the U.S.," said Tappin, of Metairie, La. "You have to get up and race."
"It was spectacular," said Shaw, who splits her training time between Mission Viejo, Calif., and the University of Texas. "I've been swimming for 11 years. It's the largest crowd I've ever competed in front of. But I've never been in front of a crowd that was this lively or this friendly. These are great sports fans."
Winning a bronze medal ended an arduous few days for Wood, a Dulaney High School graduate who will attend the University of Florida. She arrived in Cuba Aug. 4 and immediately felt dizzy in the hot, humid weather.
"The doctor called it a virus," Wood said. "He said I got it in Baltimore. It was tough sleeping at night. I'm not used to living without air conditioning."
She dropped a few pounds and kept training. After living on bread, rice and potatoes and anything else that remotely resembled American cuisine, she gobbled down three hot dogs during an outing at the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana.
"We had real food," she said. "I don't even like hot dogs, but I had to eat them."
Yesterday, Wood slogged her way through the morning preliminaries, went back to the village to nap and returned to the pool for the evening session. As usual, she was last after the opening butterfly leg of the 400 IM. But she picked up time and space during the backstroke and breast stroke, and held third during the freestyle to finish in 4:52.38.
"I'm a little disappointed with my time," she said. "I know I can go a lot faster. I wasn't worried after the butterfly. I've been that way since I was young. I go out last, but I end up coming back pretty strong."
Red, white, blue and bronze never looked any finer.