Pieter van den Hoogenband's name may be too long, but he's compelling
Posted: Thursday August 19, 2004 3:41PM; Updated: Friday August 20, 2004 3:13PM
Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands missed qualifying for the semis in the 50 freestyle this morning, and the world's headline writers heaved a sigh of relief. When the Flying Dutchman was beaten by Australia's Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle on Monday, the International Herald Tribune skipped around his space-eating name by headlining its story with three monosyllabic ones: Thorpe first, Phelps third -- and Spitz safe. But the P.VDH, as Eurosport identifies him on TV, deserves more press than his inconvenient name allows. Despite his failure to advance today, Pee-tah!, -- as his legion of Orange-swathed and clown-wigged fans call him -- has been one of the most compelling swimmers not named Michael Phelps at this Olympics.
It's not just the enthusiasm of his groupies, who brandish orange beach towels printed with Hoogie's handsome face, squeal whenever they glimpse him and win the spirit award, hands-down, at the Aquatic Center every night. Hoogie's swims in Athens have been riveting, just as they were in Sydney, where he rebounded from fourth-place finishes in the 100 and 200 free in Atlanta by winning both events in world-record time.
In his anchor leg of the men's 4x100 free relay here, he destroyed what appeared to be the USA's lock on the silver by gaining nearly a body length on Jason Lezak in the space of 15 meters in the final fifty. He swam the leg in 46.79 seconds, which was more than a second faster than Lezak and the second-fastest relay split in history. (P.VDH also owns the first and third fastest splits.) In the highly anticipated 200 free showdown with Thorpe and Phelps, Hoogie employed a different -- and ultimately failed -- strategy, rocketing out to the front and staying there for a brilliant 150 meters before fading in the final 50 meters to barely out-touch Phelps for the silver.
After failing to defend that title, Hoogie was ecstatic to pull out a repeat in the 100. In a final that included no American for the first time in a non-boycotted Olympics, he reverted to his relay strategy, getting off to a relatively leisurely start and making the turn in fifth place. In the final fifty, he blew past leader Roland Mark Schoeman of South Africa like an angry driver accelerating past a stalled car. After confirming his win with a glance at the scoreboard, the Dutchman raised his arms, screamed and then vaulted backward over the lane line.
"I'm so happy I feel like I'm drunk," said Hoogie, still grinning widely two hours after the 100. "It's much harder to defend a title than to win it."
That may be true in general (going into this Olympics, there had only been 20 repeat champions in men's and women's swimming combined), but Hoogie's loss to Thorpe in the 200 free notwithstanding, Athens has been exceptionally kind to defending gold medalists. In addition to Hoogie's repeat in the 100 free, Gary Hall Jr. repeated in the 50 free, Thorpe in the 400 free and Yana Klochkova of the Ukraine has repeated in both the 200 and 400 IMs, the first woman ever to do a double repeat. And there could be two more. Hoogie's countrywoman Inge de Bruin will try to repeat in the women's 50 free on Saturday, and Aussie Grant Hackett will try to add another gold in the men's 1500 free on Saturday.
Hoogie, however, is done for this meet. But he is already looking forward to concluding his career in Beijing in 2008, where he'll try to take the 200 title back from Thorpe and become the first male Olympic swimmer to three-peat, in the 100 free. Newspaper editors, you have been warned.
Bonus content for the trivia-inclined: Because I know you're wondering and because I bothered to look all this stuff up while stuck on a media bus for an hour and a half this morning after my small vat of coffee from Starbuckopolis had run dry: Pieter van den Hoogenband does not actually have the longest collection of letters in the roll call of Olympic swim champions. That distinction belongs to Halyna Prozumenshchykova, a Soviet who won the women's 200 breaststroke in '64 in Tokyo -- unless you include spaces, in which case Hoogie wins by a fingernail.
There are four repeat champions in the men's 100 free, more than any other event. The only three-peaters in Olympic swimming are women: Australia's Dawn Fraser, who won the 100 freestyle in '56, '60 and '64 and Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi, who won the 200 back in '88, '92 and '96. Tamas Darnyi of Hungary double repeated in the men's IMs in '88 and '92; ditto Alexander Popov in the 50 and 100 frees in '92 and '96.