Eric still had his moments—he was the fastest 400 IM qualifier at the trials for the 1994 worlds and he won the '95 summer nationals—but the big publicity rush was for Tom. He was media magic. He was the winner, the world-record holder. Eric mostly was the champion of lanes 7 and 8 at Canham Natatorium in Ann Arbor, where they practiced.
"They'd race every day," teammate and Olympic breaststroker Eric Wunderlich, Namesnik's friend, said on Sunday night. "I'd say Eric won seven out of 10. Then, again, there was all that filthy chlorine in the Michigan pool, and maybe Tom's asthma would kick up. I don't know."
"I tried to spread them around in meets, not have them face each other except in big meets," Urbanchek said. "But in practice, they were very, very competitive. There was no blood in the pool, but it was a fierce, fierce rivalry. What happened was that Eric won a lot, but Tom usually won the biggest races."
In the heats on Sunday morning in Atlanta—the last day the two would ever race each other—the fastest qualifier was Eric at 4:16.21. Tom was third at 4:17.66. This, however, was only more of lanes 7 and 8. Eric, as usual, swam as fast as he could in the heats. The churner. Tom, as usual, saved himself for the final. The talent. Different approaches. Different people.
"If had to root for someone in the final...I really couldn't choose," Urbanchek said. "Tom is just so good, but Eric is like a son. He has been at Michigan for eight years. No one has done more for Michigan swimming than Eric. I suppose I would like Eric, simply because it is his last chance. Tom will have other chances."
The men's 400 IM final was the first U.S. showpiece of the Olympics. Two Americans. Dominant in one discipline. There was a 1-2 strength here that did not exist for the U.S. in many events in any sport, certainly not in the pool. "I sat down to watch next to [U.S. assistant coach] Mark Schubert," Urbanchek said. "He said I must feel like I was watching a practice race with my own team, except here it was the Olympics."
What would happen? The results in the first three days of swimming—one day before this race, one after—showed that anything, everything could happen in any race. Form did not necessarily hold.
Ireland's 26-year-old Michelle Smith was off on a controversial roll, taking the 400 IM and 400 freestyle gold medals in times that she never had approached in two earlier Olympics. Drugs? Not drugs? It was noted that her husband of six weeks and trainer of three years, Erik de Bruin, had tested positive for steroids as a discus thrower for the Netherlands three years ago. Countering, Smith said she had been repeatedly tested for drugs in recent months and come up clean every time. The debate had begun. The Chinese women—with the exception of 100 freestyle champion Le Jingyi—were off to a bad start, not approaching previous times. Not drugs? Bad drugs? American swimming diva Janet Evans, a slow second in a slow heat, did not even qualify for the 400 free final. Done? A world record came from a Belgian, Fred Deburghgraeve, a lime of 1:00.60 in the 100 breaststroke in a qualifying heat. Qualifying heat? He won the final, although he took .05 of a second longer to do it.
The Americans enjoyed early success in relays, winning both the men's 4 X 200-meter freestyle and the women's 4 X 100-meter free. Individually, there were events in which gold had been a possibility—Gary Hall Jr. in the 100 free, Amanda Beard in the 100 breaststroke, Allison Wagner in the 400 IM, Tom Malchow in the 200-meter butterfly—but silver was the answer. Champions were from Russia (Aleksandr Popov and Denis Pankratov), South Africa (Penelope Heyns), Ireland (Smith).
The only other race in which the U.S. evinced the same early U.S. dominance as Dolan versus Namesnik came on the third day: Fifteen-year-old Beth Botsford of Timonium, Md., beat 25-year-old Whitney Hedgepeth of Colonial Heights, Va., in the 100-meter backstroke. The women, however, were different. They were friends. Hedgepeth was Botsford's mentor. "We got together last week," Botsford said. "We decided we would go 1-2 for the U.S."