Botsford: Pure gold Timonium 15-year-old wins 100 backstroke, is 1st U.S. female victor

'Wow! I couldn't believe it'

She edges Hedgepeth for 1-2 U.S. finish, continues NBAC run

Atlanta Olympics Ltc

July 23, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Beth Botsford couldn't believe her eyes. She pulled off her goggles and squinted at the results of the 100-meter backstroke and realized that it was true.

The 15-year-old from Timonium had just become the first American woman to win a gold medal at the XXVI Olympiad, a distinction made more special by the presence of the greatest number of female athletes in the history of the modern Olympic Games.

Botsford came off the starting blocks first and raced neck-and-neck with U.S. teammate Whitney Hedgepeth on the way to a personal-best 1: 01.19 and another Olympic medal for the prolific North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Hedgepeth won the silver and Marianne Kriel of South Africa took the bronze.

"I couldn't see at first who did what," Botsford said. "Then I took off my goggles. I was so excited. It was like, Wow! I couldn't believe it."

Her victory turned around what was becoming a very disappointing day for the U.S. swim team. American distance great Janet Evans had failed to qualify for the finals in a controversial 400-meter freestyle and Russian Aleksandr Popov edged American rival Gary Hall Jr. again in the 100-meter free final. The American women would win their second gold minutes later with a victory in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

The crowd at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center was still buzzing about the heart-stopping 100-meter final when Botsford and Hedgepeth hit the pool for another in a series of head-to-head matchups. Hedgepeth had beaten Botsford at both the Olympic trials and in yesterday's preliminary heat, but Botsford got the jump and finished strong in her Olympic debut.

"I'm so excited," said Botsford, a sophomore at Garrison Forest School. "The men [Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik] went one-two last night. That's what we wanted to do, and we did it."

The one-two finish was not unexpected after their strong performance in the morning, but the presence of Botsford on the highest level of the three-tiered medal stand was something of an upset. She was not even listed as one of the swimmers to watch in the 100-meter backstroke when U.S. Swimming put out a pre-meet flier for the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis.

"She's gotten very short shrift a number of times," North Baltimore coach Murray Stephens said. "U.S. Swimming put out a list of girls likely to make the Olympics before the trials and her name wasn't even there in the 100.

"When she gets a chance at an exciting moment, she reaches for it. Like at the trials, when they were painting the names of the winners on the wall, she saw that and she wanted her name up there."

Botsford finished second in the 100-meter backstroke at the trials, then won the 200-meter event. The latter is considered her better race, so another individual gold medal is not out of the question on Thursday. She also will race tomorrow in the 4x100-meter medley relay, an event in which the American team has never gotten less than a silver medal except at the boycotted 1980 Olympiad.

Three medals. Sound familiar? Anita Nall was 16 when she won a gold, a silver and a bronze in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, enhancing the reputation of the NBAC, which also boasts 1984 gold medalist Theresa Andrews and a number of other Olympians.

"It's hard to say what she'll do," Stephens said, "but I think she'll be going out there to do well again. She's a truly unique person because she broke every age-group record from the time she was 9 years old. There are people who say if you're a champion at 10 years old you're going to burn out, but she just takes whatever comes and goes on to the next thing."

There was room to wonder how Botsford would fare in her Olympic debut. On the U.S. team's plane flight to Atlanta two weeks ago, she suffered a shoulder strain that forced her to stay out of the pool for a couple of days.

But she removed any doubt about her status as one of the world's best backstrokers with a strong performance in yesterday's preliminary heat.

Stephens was pleased but non-plussed. Her preliminary time of 1: 02.00 was behind her personal best by a half-second, but Botsford may have figured all she needed to do to make the final was to stay close to Hedgepeth, who owned the best qualifying time going into the final preliminary heat.

Swimmers often try to take something out of the pool -- conserve some energy -- in the morning, though Evans may have cost herself a place in last night's 400-meter freestyle final by swimming a relaxed preliminary heat.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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