Work in Sports
De Bruijn on a roll as Games approach
Posted: Thursday June 08, 2000 09:38 AM
LONDON (AP) -- With the Sydney Olympics just three months away, swimming has a new superstar.
In a two-week period beginning in late May, Inge de Bruijn tied or broke six world records -- twice beating her own marks and winding up with four new world standards in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and butterfly.
Tall, blonde and photogenic, the Dutch swimmer has become a national hero in a country better known for producing gold-medal speedskaters.
Four years ago, de Bruijn was so unmotivated that her boyfriend-coach Jacco Verhaeren kicked her off the Dutch team despite having qualified for the Atlanta Olympics.
"At the time everybody said I was going to retire," de Bruijn recalled. "No one paid any attention to me. Now here I am. In '96 I gave up swimming and lived life to the fullest. I did everything that you can't do when you're a swimmer."
De Bruijn attributes the layoff -- and her linkup three years ago with highly regarded American coach Paul Bergen -- for her stunning success, which will make her the Sydney favorite in the three sprints [the 50 butterfly is not an Olympic event].
"I really feel like I'm floating on a cloud," she said. "All the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. I can't wait for the Olympics. It's all I think about."
But inevitable questions are being asked about the rapid rise of a 26-year-old -- middle-aged by swimming standards -- who spent much of the last decade as a good but never great swimmer. She won her first major titles only a year ago at the European Championships in Istanbul.
These days, suspicions about performance-enhancing drugs surround any swimmer who suddenly begins shattering records or winning gold medals.
De Bruijn said she has undergone -- and passed -- seven drug tests beginning in late May when, in a two-week span, she set her world marks in meets in Monaco, Sheffield, England, and Amsterdam.
"I can understand the questions [about drugs]," de Bruijn said in an interview with the French sports daily L'Equipe. "My progression is significant, but I'm not the only one,' singling out, among others, Australia's record-breaking teen-ager Ian Thorpe.
"People have to accept it. ... People should know that I train like an animal. The progress is the result of a lot of factors and when you put them together, things happen."
Two of the six-year-old records de Bruijn supplanted (50- and 100 freestyle) belonged to China's Le Jingyi. While the Chinese swimmer never tested positive, a number of her teammates have been embroiled in drug scandals in recent years.
Comparisons are inevitably made with Ireland's Michelle Smith de Bruijn, who came from nowhere at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta to win three gold medals, but was handed a four-year suspension last year for allegedly manipulating a urine sample.
Like the Irish woman, de Bruijn's progression has been astounding. She produced the 14th best time in the world in 1992 in the 50 free (25.84), but in the '96 season she ranked only 64th. Since joining Bergen, she has recorded the world's top 50 freestyle times in '98 (25.01), '99 (24.84) and '00 (24.48).
De Bruijn now holds the world marks in the 50-meter freestyle (24.48), 100 freestyle (53.80) -- the first woman under 54 seconds - 50 butterfly (25.64) and 100 butterfly (56.69), 1.19 seconds better than the old mark held by American star Jenny Thompson.
Among the doubters is Scott Volkers, the coach of Australia's Susie O'Neill, the world record-holder in the 200 butterfly.
"It's very close to impossible," Volkers said of de Bruijn's performances. "I can't imagine how you get a girl to swim that fast."
Australian national coach Don Talbot also addressed the skepticism.
"I think people do lift their eyebrows," he said. "It's an unfortunate fact of life now that anybody that swims very fast, make a big improvements, immediately comes under suspicion. It really is sad ... because good athletes, talented athletes, should be able to glory in their wins and not be criticized for them."
American Mary T. Meagher, who held the 100-meter butterfly record for 18 years, is giving de Bruijn the benefit of the doubt.
"It is absolutely astonishing what she has done," she said. "I'm not going to point the finger at her. Hopefully, it's because she has trained harder or got a new coach or developed a new technique."
Alessandro Sansa, the director of European swimming's governing body, has known de Bruijn since the '91 world championships in Perth, Australia, when he was he Italian team manager and the two teams shared a hotel.
"Maybe there have to be suspicions, but there is absolutely nothing proved against her," he said. "We shouldn't assume all swimmers who set records are cheats. It's like saying all people who drive Ferraris have cheated on their taxes."
Splitting time between Bergen in the United States and her still boyfriend-coach Verhaeren in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, de Bruijn credits the American for much of her success through "ruthless training." The new neck-to-ankle swimsuits have also helped.
Bergen, the former coach of Olympic gold medalist Tracy Caulkins, has de Bruijn rope climbing, weight lifting, swimming with shoes to add drag, and practicing martial arts.
He's also toughened her mentally. In 1997, Bergen refused to let her go home to the Netherlands for her grandfather's funeral, insisting that she stay in the United States to train for the upcoming world championships.
"I needed to be tougher mentally," de Bruijn said. "Before I never was. I was scared. Today, I'm not scared of anyone. I feel invincible."