She came from nowhere, from the depths of the form charts that assumed she was too old and too slow, from a country that does not have one Olympic-sized, 50-meter-long pool. Still, she won gold in the 200-and the 400-meter IMs and the 400 freestyle, and got the bronze medal in the 200 butterfly.
Leprechauns danced and freckles had hidden powers and she did things that no one ever had done in a swimming pool, winning her medals in individual races rather than in relays as some other, better-known multimedal champions have.
"She has surpassed everything that has ever been done in Irish sport," Ireland's minister of sport, Bernard Allen, freshly arrived from Dublin, said last Friday night. "I was in Parliament the other day when everything stopped to approve a message of congratulations to her. Both benches supported the motion." This was the Irish version.
She also was a cheat, a finagler. She somehow found a way, with the aid of her new husband, who has also been her trainer for the past three years, to skirt the drug rules of her sport. She was an undocumented addition to those documented miscreants from China and East Germany. How could she have improved so quickly? Without medicinal help? How? She somehow hadn't been caught yet.
"We've given people the benefit of the doubt for too long," U.S. women's coach Richard Quick said after Smith had knocked an amazing 13½ seconds off her previous best time this year by winning the 400 IM in 4:39.18. "It's time we investigate sudden jumps in performance." This was the American version.
Every other day for the first week of the Games, this redheaded woman with broad shoulders and a hydrodynamic, knee-length bathing suit that looked like something out of the 1920s swam faster than she ever had. Every other day she would report to a tense press conference at which Irish reporters would preface all questions with melodious congratulations and American reporters would throw undisguised darts.
She faced down her accusers. She smiled in the right places. One night, an off night, she met President Clinton in the stands, and they talked as equals about the "crap" the media can deliver. She told the story at the next press conference. In English. Again in Gaelic.
She was eloquent and tough. No, she had never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Never. Plain enough? The past of her husband, 33-year-old former discus thrower Erik de Bruin of the Netherlands, suspended after a positive drug test in 1993, was not part of the interview process. Next question. She improved through hard work, hard work, then some more hard work. O.K.?
The Americans cocked an eyebrow at her story. The Irish turned it into a poem to be recited, a song to be sung over a slowly drawn pint of Guinness on a midsummer's night. "The whole country's going mad," Sean Ban Breathnach, a Gaelic radio reporter, declared. "No one can get any sleep, her races are on so late. No work is being done. I just called my wife. The post usually comes at half 10. It still hadn't come at a quarter to six. The whole country's stopped."
"She's always been an achiever," Sarah, Michelle's 24-year-old sister, says. "She never smoked, never drank. She was the one who got up at five in the morning to train when the rest of us would want to sleep. She got As in school. She went to college in America, University of Houston, and one of the required courses was American history. She didn't know anything about American history at the start, but at the end she got the only A in the class. That's just how she is."