Americans were everywhere. Janet Evans might have ended her Olympic career on a down note, finishing out of the money in both the 400 and the 800 frees, but 16-year-old Brooke Bennett took Evans's old place on the 800 medal stand to become the distance queen. Fifteen-year-old Beth Bots-ford won the 100 backstroke, 25-year-old teammate Whitney Hedgepeth finishing second (then adding another silver in the 200 backstroke).
Brad Bridgewater won the men's 200 backstroke, with Tripp Schwenk second. Everywhere. Sprinter Angel Martino earned four medals, two bronze individual medals and two relay golds. Jenny Thompson finished with three relay gold medals, to give her five over two Olympics, tying Bonnie Blair for the most golds by a U.S. woman.
China, which figured to win as many as eight golds in Atlanta, was a constant in retreat, winning only one event and amassing only six medals. New Zealand's Danyon Loader was a constant, taking the 200 and 400 free. Russian sprinter extraordinaire Aleksandr Popov was a constant, beating Hall by an eyelash in both the 50 and 100 frees, races he had also won in Barcelona. South Africa's breaststroker Penelope Heyns was a constant, taking both the 100 and 200. The crowds at the Aquatic Center also were a constant, 15,000-seat sellouts every night for seven nights, raucous cheers and star-spangled flag-waving for every American who moved to the starting line.
By the time the final night arrived, however, another set of colors had been added to the picture. Green, white and orange. The Irish had arrived. "I watched the first race at home, in a pub in Dublin," Sarah Smith said. "Everybody was throwing champagne everywhere until four o'clock in the morning. The second race I watched in a TV studio in Dublin because they asked me to come. The third race and the fourth...here. Dunnes Stores sent all the rest of us over. They did a deal with Michelle. My other sister, my brother, myself, my aunt, maybe about 10 of us. And I heard that 400 more people came along, paid their own way. Just to be here for the end."
The end, last Friday night, was the bronze in the 200 fly. Had she won, Michelle would have been only the third swimmer, after Mark Spitz in 1972 and Kristin Otto in '88, to win four individual gold medals in one Games. She failed in a distracted way: the strap to her goggles breaking before the race, her rushing as she tried to find a second set, then borrowing a pair from a Dutch swimmer. Everything happened in a hurry, but not an unhappy hurry.
"I found myself crying on the podium," Michelle said afterward. "I said to myself, Why am I doing this? Am I sad because I didn't win another gold? I realized that wasn't it at all. I was crying because I was so happy. This was the greatest week of my life."
The Irish version. There was good beer and good conversation. The Guinness people had rented the second floor of the DeKalb County courthouse in nearby Decatur and named it Irish House. This was where the celebration was held.
A portrait of some former local official looked down from a stately wall at all these visitors speaking in a brogue. Michelle and Erik weren't there—offers of endorsements and other business opportunities were arriving in bulk, demands everywhere—but the family was there. The friends were there.
Sarah was saying how "mischievous" her sister was, always the practical joker. Patricia was saying how she and Brian always had to be in bed by nine, simply to take their daughters to swimming practice. Brian was saying, well, Brian was saying that he was the one person who had predicted this. Not to worry. He said he had seen the progress over three years, seen it daily. Drugs? Not a chance. "I was always a big one to talk about the East Germans and the Chinese," he said. "What they did really bothered me. If Michelle had taken drugs, I couldn't walk outside the house, couldn't look people in the eye. Michelle, too. She couldn't look people in the eye. We couldn't face people."
There was a better rumor—a strong rumor—that a national holiday was going to be called for the day Michelle returned to Dublin. What would that be like? There could be a holiday for a swimmer.