Two who were cheated of opportunity to shine

NBAC member Limpert won silver behind Smith, who failed '96 drug test


April 19, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Michelle Smith didn't make much of a splash in swimming until she married Erik de Bruin, who was her coach despite having no background in the sport.

He had thrown the discus for the Netherlands in two Olympics, but his track and field career ended with a four-year suspension for excessive levels of testosterone. In 1993, de Bruin told a Dutch newspaper, "Sport is by definition dishonest," which added to the circumstantial evidence that his wife was a cheat.

When Smith, then 26, made substantial improvements and won three gold medals for Ireland at the 1996 Olympics, speculation heightened that she was using banned substances. That wasn't confirmed until 1998 - two years too late for Marianne Limpert.

Limpert, 31, who joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club last year, is attempting to become the first Canadian to swim in four Olympics. The highlight of her career is the silver medal she earned in the 200-meter individual medley eight years ago.

The only woman higher on the medal podium that July day was Smith, whose margin of victory over Limpert was less than half a second.

"I congratulated her on the podium," Limpert said, "but I asked myself, `Was that really a fair win?' There was tons of speculation, but not much you can do. I had dreams about her testing positive, then you wake up and you're still the silver medalist. It took me a year and a half to get over it, before it started all over again."

In January 1998, Smith stalled drug testers at her home in Ireland but eventually produced a urine sample. According to the Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, the sample contained "a level of alcohol that would be fatal if consumed by a human." FINA ruled the sample had been manipulated and suspended Smith for four years, ending her career.

"The head of Canadian swimming talked to me about lodging a protest, to get her to give back her gold medal," Limpert said. "I didn't want that. I would rather have won the gold medal on the podium in Atlanta than get it a few years later. It's just not the same.

"1996 is still a happy moment, seeing my parents in the stands, waving to teammates from the podium, getting my medal from Prince Albert. Everything happens for a reason. If I had won the gold medal then, I probably would have stopped swimming."

The darker side

Anti-doping authorities trumpet their vigilance, but seemingly innocent athletes have served suspensions and others have had to look up on the awards stand to suspected cheaters. Sun staff writer Paul McMullen talked to two elite swimmers who know the darker side of drug testing.

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