BARCELONA, Spain -- Today is for ice cream, candy and mean faces no more. It is for Snickers bars rained down from the heavens and for Olympic legends swimming relay legs in the morning, with all the other trash-heap qualifiers. It is for Summer Sanders and for the rest of the U.S. swim team, free at last and not so bad after all.
Olympic swimming is six days long, a deep breath held while the rest of the Games pump slowly into gear. Today it is over. They're playing water polo in the pool while you eat breakfast. And mostly, American swimmers spent the week dodging suggestions that they weren't living up to expectations, or to all those fast times swum at the U.S. trials in March.
Sanders, the 19-year-old Stanford sophomore with the name made to sell expensive things, was among those most assailed. She swam four individual events and before last night had won a bronze and silver medal. Never mind that she had swum fast. Her teammates were winning medals, but not all of them were gold. They had become a bristly bunch. And then last night, right before Ron Karnaugh's emotional swim in the men's 200 individual medley, Sanders finally got her gold medal and shucked all that worry off her shoulders as if she had been loosed from some chlorinated hell. She swam a personal best of 2 minutes, 8.67 seconds in the 200-meter butterfly and then leaped from the pool, ran 20 meters across the blue rubber deck and shouted to her parents in the seats above her.
"I touched the wall and I had so much evergy," she said. "They wouldn't even let me out of the pool in my lane, so I had to go to the side and then I guess I was just doing my own little triathlon. For sure, if I hadn't won at least one gold, I'd be really bummed right now.
"I just know," she said, "that people aren't expecting me to do anything tomorrow. I can sleep late, I can go to events."
Along with her butterfly gold, Sanders won a gold as a member of the 400-medley prelim relay team, a silver in the 200 individual medley and a bronze in the 400 individual medley. In the 200 butterfly, China's Xiaohong Wang took the silver in 2:09.01. Susan O'Neill of Australia was third and American Angie Wester-Krieg was sixth.
Sanders taught her team a lesson yesterday. After greeting the crowd with toothy smiles and Miss America waves before each of her previous swims, she stared only at the pool this time. "My mean face," she called it. "I wasn't swimming for anybody else but me today," Sanders said. This team nonsense is overrated, anyway. It's a bunch of individuals.
Four of them -- backstroker Jeff Rouse, breastroker Nelson Diebel, butterflyer Pablo Morales and free-styler Jon Olsen -- won the 400-meter medley relay, the last event of the Games. This, after an entirely different team that included Matt Biondi (who was beaten by Olsen in the 100 free and thus relegated to a.m. duty) qualified in the morning. All eight get gold medals, which gives Biondi 11 Olympic medals and ties him with Mark Spitz and shooter Carl Osburn for the most in the U.S. Olympic history.
"It feels a little anticlimatic right now," Biondi said, "because I didn't swim in the relay." But wasn't it wacky to swim in the morning? "I've never done it before," he said. "It was fun. I was telling all the guys stories in the ready room before the race."
They won the last swimming gold medal of the Games, giving the United States a total of 27 medals, 11 gold. The Unified Team, made up entirely of Russians, had six and 10, and China had five and nine, respectively. Nine reigning world champions failed to win gold medals. "We're not going to win them all ever again," said men's team coach Eddie Reese of the University of Texas.
Jani Sievinen of Finland upset world-record holder Tamas Darnyi in the 200 individual medley (Karnaugh faded to sixth), and Krisztina "the Mouse" Egerszegi, a 17-year-old from Hungary, won her third individual gold medal, with a dominant performance in the 200-meter backstroke. She was was the only swimmer to win three individual golds (Where you have gone, Kristin Otto?).
But for all of this and Karnaugh aside, this was Sanders' night. She looked tired while getting a silver in the 200IM Thursday. Her college coach, Richard Quick, played with her brain during the afternoon. "You swim butterfly longer, faster than anybody in the world," he said. But he knew what everyone knew: that Sanders had better be leading off the last wall or she's dead meat. And last night in the final, Sanders was in third place, down five meters with 50 to swim.
And she won with a kick. "I've never seen her win a race like that," Quick said.
"Those last 10 meters," Sanders said. "I definitely had my mean face on."
These were going to be the Olympic Games that made Sanders a star. Endorsements. Commercials. A job with MTV. Who knows what? "I felt like me and Kim Zmeskal were put in the same position, having to win so many gold medals," Sanders said. "People said five gold medals for me. After five months, you start to listen to that. But tonight I still thought that I could win one gold medal."
The plan was for swimmers to come away from here as superstars. Instead they come away as good. They'll live.