Illustrated Daily, July 26, 1996

Sports Illustrated Daily Feature Story

Passing The Torch

With her breakaway win, Brooke Bennett of the U.S. replaced legend Janet Evans as distance darling

by Gerry Callahan

She plans to celebrate her victory by paying some strange character to scrawl the Olympic rings onto her ankle, which should, for the moment, squelch the comparisons to Janet Evans. Evans couldn't imagine getting a tattoo. Acquiring a tattoo is at the top of Brooke Bennett's things to do list, just ahead of learning to skydive, another endeavor that doesn't appeal to Evans.

Meet the new Queen of Swimming. Not the same as the old Queen.

Bennett and Evans

After Bennett (right) swam off with the gold, Evans swam over and gave her former adversary a hug.

photograph by
Robert Beck

Evans passed the torch to Muhammad Ali on Sunday and to Bennett yesterday, and it's hard to say which moment was more emotional or more memorable to the four-time gold medalist. Evans's final Olympic experience began with her surprise assignment at the opening ceremonies, and it essentially ended last night with her sixth-place finish in the 800-meter freestyle, most likely the last race of her storied career. The gold medal went to the 16-year-old Bennett, and so did the unofficial title of golden girl of American swimming.

Bennett finished with a time of 8:27.89, two seconds ahead of silver medalist Dagmar Hase of Germany and more than 11 seconds ahead of Evans, the world-record holder and two-time defending Olympic champion in the 800. At the conclusion of the race, as the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center crowd roared, Evans swam across three lanes to congratulate the new champion and alleviate some of the tension that existed between the two. The normally brash Bennett was nothing but gracious after receiving her first Olympic medal.

"I think Janet will always be the queen of distance swimming," she said. "Hopefully I'll move up now that I've won a gold medal, but Janet's been there since 1988. She's won gold medals and national titles and set world records—all the things that I haven't done yet."

While one great rivalry ended last night, another raged on. Shortly after Evans climbed out of the pool for the last time and Bennett took her place atop the medal stand, the top male sprinters in the world exploded into the water. Just as in the 100 freestyle on Monday, Aleksandr Popov of Russia and Gary Hall Jr. of the U.S. were side by side in the 50, and unfortunately for Hall, the conclusion was strikingly familiar. Popov, the defending Olympic champion and Olympic-record holder, touched just ahead of Hall, with a time of 22:13 to Hall's 22:26.

Hall and Popov

Hall (far left) got the early jump, but as was the case in the 100, Popov (next to Hall) won by an eyelash.

photograph by
John Biever

In the last race of the night, the U.S. remained untouchable in the relays, winning the 4x200 freestyle in 7:59.87 and setting U.S. and Olympic records in the process. The victory gave Jenny Thompson the fifth medal of her career, four golds in relays and a silver in the 100 free. Trina Jackson, Cristina Teuscher and Sheila Taormina joined her in the record-setting effort.

No race, however, brought more electricity to the pool than the showdown between the two charismatic sprinters. The margin between the two when they hit the wall was barely perceptible, but again Hall was a whisker from the gold. Although he won gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay, Hall has a silver collection reminiscent of that from his father's Olympic career. A three-time Olympic swimmer, Gary Hall Sr. never won a gold. Gary Hall Jr. plans to get his first individual gold four years from now in Sydney.

"I do not feel I lost the gold," said Junior. "I think the next time—and there will be a next time—you'll see a hell of a race. Where he's at now, I'll be in 2000."

The two marquee sprinters present a stark contrast in styles: Popov, 24, is a training fanatic and a classical-music fan who lives to swim. Hall, 21, is a rock 'n' roll guitarist and hard-core Deadhead who has never been accused of overtraining. Hall, who shaved his goatee for the Olympics, wore leather motorcycle pants on deck instead of warmups at the U.S. trials. Popov never seems to have a hair out of place, even when he's underwater. Hall and Popov sniped at each other in the past, but last night they sat together like old friends.

Popov, who has not lost a 50 or a 100 in a major international competition since 1991, became the first Olympic swimmer to win consecutive 100s since Johnny Weissmuller in 1928. He lives and trains in Australia, and he vows he will be back to add to his legend in four years. "If you win your first Olympics, you become famous," he said. "If you win your second Olympics, you become great. If you win your third Olympics, you become history."

She failed to win her third Olympics, but Evans become history just the same. She splashed onto the Olympic scene at the 1988 Seoul Games, a spunky 17-year-old California kid who didn't realize that she was supposed to drown in the wake of the mighty East Germans. Evans won three gold medals in Seoul and earned a permanent place in the hearts and minds of American fans. Four years later in Barcelona, she grabbed a gold and a silver.

Popov and Hall

The relationship between Popov (left) and Hall is starting to resemble the tight races they swim.

photograph by
Richard Mackson

Evans considered retiring before these Games, but her rivalry with Bennett and a chance to become the first U.S. woman to win five individual golds at the Summer Games fanned her competitive flames. She failed to qualify for the 400 finals and posted just the sixth-best time in the 800 prelims. Before last night's race, she got eight shots of novocaine for a toe she fractured two days earlier, an injury that may have slowed her but didn't cost her a medal. Two laps into the race it was clear she wasn't going to catch Bennett. A brilliant career was over; another one had begun.

"It's been great, and I can leave here with a smile on my face and no regrets," said Evans. "I haven't won any gold medals, and I haven't had my best performances, but this is probably my favorite Olympics. I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything in the world."

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