Ivan Ivankov will lose his title in Sydney: He'll no longer be the greatest gymnast who has never competed at an Olympics. Ivankov, 25, won the all-around at the world championships in 1994 and '97 and the European crowns in '94 and '96. But two weeks before the Atlanta Games he tore his right Achilles tendon. "Like that," he says, "everything that's my life, everything finish." Ivankov underwent surgery and a grueling rehab. He returned from the injury a year later and won the worlds but since then has had follow-up operations in France and Finland to arrest an infection and remove scar tissue. In the last six months, healthy again, he has trained furiously, he says, and recaptured his old panache. "I like to do gymnastics that makes people think, Why can't everybody do this like him," he says. In May he won four medals at the European championships. "It's not the same as the Olympics," he says. "I want to feel the Olympic spirit. Everybody talks about it, and I don't know what is this thing—it's my inspiration."
Inge de Bruijn
When Inge De Bruijn, a swimmer of steady accomplishment but little renown, broke world records seven times in a three-week span in May and June, she drew unwanted comparisons to Michelle Smith, the Irishwoman who rose from mediocrity to win three gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics, only to be suspended for allegedly cheating on a drug test in 1998. Australia's Susie O'Neill, the '96 Olympic champion in the 200-meter butterfly, called De Bruijn's marks "pretty suss," as in suspicious. They may be suss, but they're also stag, as in staggering. In May, De Bruijn, 27, swam the 100 fly in 56.69, smashing Jenny Thompson's world record by 1.19 seconds. Before Thompson set the record, by .05, Mary Meagher had held it for 18 years. De Bruijn lowered the mark again in July, to 56.64. She now holds the records in that event and in the 50 and 100 freestyles.
Yet this is a woman who declined a spot on the Dutch team in 1996 because, she says, she was burned out. The turnaround came in '97, when she met Paul Bergen, the Virginia-based coach who works with De Bruijn when her boyfriend, Jacco Verhaeren, isn't coaching her in Holland. Bergen coaxed De Bruijn into adopting a windmill stroke and started her on a regimen that includes up to eight hours a day of weight training, biking, rope climbing and swimming. Add to that the bodysuit De Bruijn began wearing last year, and her ascension, she insists, is really very log, as in logical. "It's pretty sad," De Bruijn recently told The Australian, "but right now, if you perform well in any sport, they cut your head off."
More than anything, nine-year-old Li Na wanted to dive. She told her father, Yin Huayuan, that she didn't want to keep participating in acrobatics competitions. She balked at taking gymnastics classes. A diving board was what she wanted, though there was no provincial team in her region of China and no way to dive competitively unless she left home to train in Beijing. Finally, her father took her to a nearby pool, and before long she was plunging fearlessly off a makeshift 30-foot tower. There was one problem: Li Na couldn't swim. She could flip, twist and land on her head with surprising ease, but she needed her father, once a nationally ranked marathon runner, to jump in and rescue her.
She swims fine now and has only gotten better as a diver. At the 1998 Asian Games she earned a silver medal, at age 14. "I don't think I'm too young," she said then. "I think this is the best age." These days, under Beijing-based national coach Wu Guocun, Li, 16, isn't allowed to go home to visit her parents, even though her mom, Meichin, works for a provincial sports commission. After two World Cup wins this year, Li is favored to take the individual 10-meter and the synchronized platform, with teammate Sang Xue.
At just 250 pounds, Kerry McCoy has pestered his way to the top of the heavyweight (286-pound) division. "My goal is to tire the bigger guy out," says McCoy, 26, who has been bulking up since his former weight class (220) was eliminated after the 1996 Games. "I move around constantly."