Towson's Nall must settle for bronze

July 28, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- It's hard to smile when you are 16 and the world is watching your heart break.

You never think about finishing third, only first.

But someone else, a little younger, someone else, from the other side of the earth, pushes past you, touches the wall before you, gets to stand a step or two higher on a medal platform.

Yesterday, Anita Nall of Towson did not win the gold medal in the women's 200-meter breast stroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics. She didn't get the silver. She accepted the bronze. And she cried.

Not real big tears. Little ones she wiped away with her hands while she floated in the pool, her face turned from the scoreboard.

"I really haven't had time yet to think about what happened in the race," Anita said moments after accepting her medal. "I got a little nervous. I got a little tired."

The world-record holder was left behind in this ferocious finish in an outdoor pool on a evening so hot that spectators fanned themselves and swimmers covered their heads with towels drenched in water.

Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan, who turned 14 last Tuesday, the same day Anita celebrated her sweet 16th birthday with a party in France, won in an Olympic record time of 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds.

And Lin Li, 21, of China, was second in 2:26.85.

Anita was third in 2:26.88, the sixth-fastest time ever, yet more than a second off her world mark of 2:25.35.

She had never met the girl from Japan, nor the woman from China. On the victory podium, Anita tried to smile. Really. But it was hard.

She stepped up to the platform a second before she was supposed to, and then, you saw the grin, spreading across her face. She waved to her U.S. teammates. She waved to the crowd. Accepted the medal.

"I'm fine," she would say later. "I'm a little disappointed that I hadn't done a faster time. I guess I shouldn't be upset with the bronze medal."

Since she lowered the world record twice in one day at the U.S. trials in March, Anita has given more than 200 interviews. She posed for magazine covers and clothing advertisements. She completed her sophomore classes at Towson Catholic High School. And she trained. Hard.

"Anita has had a lot of pressure on her," said her teammate, Nicole Haislett, winner of the women's 200-meter freestyle gold medal. "She has a lot of experience, especially for a 16-year-old. But she doesn't have a lot of international experience. She really wanted to go out there and win. But the Olympics are different. In the states, she just kills everyone. In this race, she had people next to her. Maybe that's why she panicked. She should be happy with any medal. They don't come along too often."

Anita was nervous. Before the race, she rocked back and forth in her seat, curling her toes and adjusting her goggles. "It's very exciting," she said. "But you get scared swimming in front of hundreds of people, thousands of people." But Anita appeared to relax as she landed in the water and by 150 meters, she had a body-length lead over Kyoko. And then, the teen-ager with the sport's strongest kick faded on the last lap. Stroke by stroke, Kyoko reeled in Anita. And by the time the swimmers came to the finish wall, Ms. Lin came out of lane 7 to win the silver.

"I just couldn't bring it home," Anita said.

Later, the three swimmers came together for a news conference. Anita sat at one corner of the table while photographers for Japanese newspapers bathed their nation's newest star in a flood of flashes.

Kyoko said, "The gold medal is very heavy." And Anita turned to the teen-ager she had never met before, the one who shares a birthday and a talent for the breast stroke, and said, "She must be a strong little girl."

As she left the swimming stadium, Anita stopped to give her parents a hug. She left the bronze medal with her brother Marc and said, "See ya," before two coaches nudged her up the stairs of a waiting bus. There's another race tomorrow, the 100 breast stroke. And maybe a relay, too. She could still get a gold.

The Nalls stood in the parking lot, waving, choking as the bus kicked up a cloud of dust. They hugged.

"I would have cried had Anita won," John Nall said. "I won't cry because she didn't. She swam the third best race of her life. She didn't lose. The other girls won."

Marilyn Nall had cheered through the race, and cheered again during the medal ceremony. The gold was what all had been after, but the bronze looked just fine, now.

"I'm disappointed for Anita," she said. "But there is so much pressure. Months of pressure for a girl. We're thrilled with the bronze. To turn 16 and win a medal in the Olympics, what more could you ask for?"

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