The drive came from inside. Isn't that how champions work? The drive was her most natural gift. She started in the old 25-meter pool at King's Hospital in Dublin, the water so cold sometimes that it felt as if it contained ice cubes. Brian, the owner of a small auto-parts shop, simply wanted all three of his girls, plus his son, to learn how to swim so they wouldn't drown. Michelle was in love with the sport from the first minute.
"You know, I don't want you to be thinking I'm pushing you into this," Brian told her as she became more and more competitive. "This has to be your choice." He gave her the family alarm clock. If she wanted to get up for the early practices, she would have to decide to do it. She then could wake him up to take her to the pool. He wasn't going to wake her. Her decision.
Michelle never backed away. By the time she was 18, having graduated from a Gaelic-speaking school but talking English at home, she was in the Olympics in Seoul. Brian was the only family member present, sent by donations from the town. The South Koreans read his nametag wrong and called him Brain. Hello, Brain. This was her international debut, finishing 17th in her best race, the 200-meter backstroke.
By the time the Barcelona Games rolled around in 1992, she had trained for 18 months in Calgary and two years in Houston. She got homesick a lot but followed the sport where it took her, looking for more success. She carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremonies. Her performances were doomed by degenerative disks, her best finish a 26th in the 400 IM.
Her most important moment in Barcelona turned out to be a lunch date she had with a friend who was a friend of a Dutch walker who was trained by De Bruin. De Bruin was at the lunch, and a relationship was soon formed. A love relationship. "Michelle came back from Barcelona and was just moping about the house," Sarah says. "I told her the race was done and she should get on with her life. She said, no, that wasn't a problem. She had met a guy she liked, and he hadn't called. I told her to forget that, too; that maybe they'd had a good time, but it was over now. At that moment, just like the movies, the phone rang. It was Erik."
He not only saw her again, but he also eventually wanted to train her in Rotterdam. He had never trained a swimmer but thought the theories of track and field training could be brought to the pool. He said the routines she had been doing seemed antiquated. He asked for six months. If she didn't feel she was progressing after that, she could go to someone else.
The six months became three years and marriage. Smith said her diet was changed and her approach was changed, more event-level training instead of simple mileage in the pool. She worked more. She rested more. No longer a student, she could now be a full-time athlete. "No one works as hard as she does," Brian says. "Let me tell you about her wedding day. She trained for two hours in the morning. She came home, got married, had a bite to eat, then went back to the pool for two more hours. Came home again. Bite to eat. Bed. She wouldn't take a day off for her wedding."
The day—June 11—was too close to the Olympics.
"The biggest medal was the first one," Michelle says. "To win that medal, to stand on the podium with the national anthem, that was what I always had dreamed about. That was the one I wanted. The rest were extra."
She was a constant in a meet that had a load of constants. U.S. relay teams were constants, Americans taking all six relays, including a world-record 3:34.84 in the men's 4 x 100 medley relay. Amy Van Dyken of the U.S. was a constant, with four wins, two in relays plus individual victories in the 50 free and the 100 butterfly. She became the first American woman in history to win four gold medals in one Olympics. Van Dyken, who in high school was teased because she was six feet tall, said she won for "all the nerds out there." The U.S., overall, had a much stronger meet than expected, taking 26 medals, 13 gold. "I think what you've witnessed here is a perfect example of what it means for a team to pull together and really take charge," U.S. sprinter Gary Hall Jr. said after anchoring that 4 x 100 medley relay in the final event of the meet.