Patricia Smith decided to pray a bit inside her room at the Days Inn in Stone Mountain, Ga. She saw that the time was five past 11 on the first morning of the Olympic swimming competition, and she was frantic. Prayer was the only answer. Television had failed.
"Do you know the song about 57 channels and nothing's on?" she said. 'That was the truth."
She and her husband, Brian, had clicked across the buffet line of choices—cartoon conflict, the talking heads of American politicians, headline news, even coverage of the XXVI Summer Olympics—and had found everything and nothing at the same time. Nothing that they had wanted to see.
They had tickets for the women's 400-meter individual medley swimming finals that night at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center—tickets purchased long ago through the Irish athletic federation—but had not been able to buy tickets for the qualifying heats that were taking place, check the clock, right this minute.
They were on a modest budget, their trip sponsored by contributions made through a neighborhood pub. What if Michelle did not qualify for the final? She had never made a final in two previous Olympics. Brian, the optimist, said, "Not to worry," but Patricia could see herself selling the tickets to strangers before the evening session. There might be no need to go.
What was wrong with American television? Where were the heats? If she and Brian had stayed home in Rathcoole, on the outskirts of Dublin, they would have been fine. Two channels. No cable. No problem. Michelle would be on the screen in Ireland. For sure.
The telephone rang at half 11. A broadcaster from RTE, the Irish national television system, wanted to know what Patricia thought about Michelle's performance. "I don't know," she said. "What was it?"
"Brilliant," the broadcaster said. "She's in the final."
The week of the magic had begun. By the time Michelle Smith—Patricia and Brian's 26-year-old daughter, oldest of four children—had finished her mad work in the pool, she would have three gold medals, one bronze and the hearts and minds and sleep patterns of her entire country in her pocket. She would be one of the most successful and controversial figures ever to flail through the chlorinated waters of an Olympics.
Television? There would be no trouble finding Michelle Smith on any television anywhere.