Botsford qualifies first in 200 back Time is fourth-best by American female

March 12, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Baltimore 14-year-old Beth Botsford hit the big time last night. She was surrounded by television cameras as she loosened up for the final heat in the 200-meter backstroke. She was right there in the glare of the national spotlight, getting a taste of the kind of intrusive media attention she will face when she gets to Atlanta in July.

And she responded like a champion, racing to a phenomenal time on her way to a victory that elevated her into the world's elite in her event.

Botsford swam 2 minutes, 10.66 seconds to outdistance favorite Whitney Hedgepeth and qualify for her second event at the 1996 Olympic Games. She finished second to Hedgepeth in the 100-meter backstroke earlier in the U.S. Olympic team trials to VTC earn a place on the U.S. team, but this was a breakthrough performance that makes her a medal contender.

The time was the fourth-fastest by an American female in the event, and it placed her ninth all-time in the world. Perhaps as importantly, she showed that she performs at her best under pressure, which should hold her in good stead for the intense competition she will face this summer.

It was that kind of night all-around for the Olympic hopefuls at the Indiana University Natatorium:

The first race of the evening featured another showdown between 15-year-old Brooke Bennett and four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans in the 800-meter freestyle. Bennett won in 8: 31.41, and Evans finished two seconds behind to qualify for her second event.

Curl-Burke's Tom Dolan just missed an American record in the 200-meter individual medley, but won easily to become the first men's triple qualifier. He swam 2: 00.20, less than a tenth of a second off David Wharton's U.S. mark of 2: 00.11.

Arizona State University swimmer Gary Hall Jr. won the 50-meter freestyle in 22.27, just ahead of North Carolina 25-year-old David Fox. Seven-time Olympic medalist Tom Jager attempted -- at 31 -- to reach the Olympics for the fourth time but finished seventh in the final.

Botsford was the leading qualifier in her morning preliminary, swimming a personal-best 2: 12.13. She hit the water first in the final and never surrendered the lead, swimming 1 1/2 seconds faster than her earlier heat.

North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Murray Stephens said after the morning preliminaries that he thought she would step up, and he was pleased with the way she shook off the pre-race distractions.

"You've got to get used to it," he said. "It's part of the dance. I thought she handled it."

It isn't the first time that Botsford has swum in a big meet. Far from it. She has been to four nationals and a U.S. Open, but this was the first time she was at the center of attention. The minicam was just a couple of feet from her face all the time she was stretching at the starting blocks. Another was right behind her, focusing on Hedgepeth in lane five.

"I just try everything I can not to pay any attention to it at all," Botsford said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't have any control over that."

Botsford may be only 14, but she knows what she wants, and she isn't afraid to look ahead to the prize that may await her in Atlanta. The competition will be fierce -- with China and Germany certain to field very strong women's teams -- but she found out this week that she can compete with anyone.

"I can look that far ahead and hope for the best," Botsford said. "I am definitely going to be training for that. If everything comes together at the right time, I think that's a possibility."

The potential is high. Botsford is the third-youngest swimmer to make the U.S. team (fellow 14-year-olds Amanda Beard and Jilen Siroky are several months younger), and she has nearly five months to shave another second or two off her 200-meter time.

Botsford and Whitney Metzler have made the U.S. team, and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club could send one more swimmer to Atlanta if Whitney Phelps can make good on her No. 1 seeding in the women's 200-meter butterfly in the final day of trials today.

The much-anticipated duel between Bennett and Evans in the 800-meter final materialized as expected, but the times were so far off Evans' world record that both took issue with questions about their much-publicized rivalry.

"I don't necessarily think it's a rivalry," Evans said. "We're teammates now. There's a lot of great competition out there. I've said that and I'll say that until I'm blue in the face. I think we need to focus on everyone, not just two people, especially two people who just swam 8: 31 and 8: 33.

"We need to focus on [Australian] Hayley Lewis and the Chinese and the Germans. It's not going to be a grudge match. We've got to work together to improve."

It was Bennett's brash comments about Evans last year that created the appearance of animosity between the two, but she has tried hard the past several months to distance herself from those comments.

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