"A lot of guys didn't like him at first," Hall says. "I didn't like him at first. He's very confident. It's a good thing, self-confidence, because if you don't have confidence in this sport, you're not going to make it, but he'd push it. The more I knew him, the more I liked him, but I still wanted to wring his neck about every other day."
Once Ervin qualified for the U.S. team, the big story about him concerned race. His father, Jack, is three-fourths African-American, one-fourth native American. That made the son 37-5% African-American, giving Ervin the distinction of being the first African-American to swim for the U.S. in the Olympics. Despite his pale skin color, he was regarded in some breathless reports as the sport's Jackie Robinson. It was not a role he wanted. "I want to be a role model," he says, "but I want to be a role model for all kids. People try to say I'm one thing or another. I don't think it's a big deal being from mixed heritage these days in America."
Hall's family history also became an issue in the media. He's the son of a famous swimmer, Gary Hall Sr. There were the images from the 1976 Montreal Games of Gary Sr. taking his two-year-old son from his wife, Mary, and walking him around the pool to a standing ovation after winning a bronze medal in the 100 butterfly. There was also the family legacy: Though Hall Sr. set 11 world records, he had never won an Olympic gold medal in three Games. Hall Jr. also had never won gold. This was overdramatized.
"The big thing is, this kid is totally different from the Gary Hall [Jr.] of a few years ago," Hall Sr. says. "He's confronted a disease that made him worry about how he was going to function as a person, much less an athlete. He had to go to four doctors before he found one who said he should keep swimming. He wants to be a spokesman for people with diabetes, to show how a person can live a full life. That is what is important to him now."
Hall and Ervin made their Sydney debut on the first night of swimming as part of the 4x100 relay team. It was not a great debut. The U.S. men, who were unbeaten in every Olympics in which the event had been contested, were nipped by the Australians, even though Hall outswam Ian Thorpe on the anchor leg by six hundredths of a second. Predictions of a U.S. disaster flourished. Former Olympic champion Mark Spitz already had said the U.S. women probably wouldn't win a single gold medal. Could this be true?
Considering the rise in performance levels around the world, the restrictions that limit each country to two swimmers per event, plus the hostile road environment, this was the best U.S. swim performance in history. Each night a different American won a gold. Today, Megan Quann in the 100 breaststroke, tomorrow Misty Hyman in the 200 butterfly. Today, Tom Dolan in the 400 individual medley, tomorrow Tom Malchow in the 200 fly.
Lenny Krayzelburg won gold in the 100 and the 200 backstroke and added a third in the medley relay. Brooke Bennett settled in as the successor to Janet Evans, taking the 400 and the 800 freestyle. The U.S. men's and women's 4x100 medley relay teams smashed world records en route to victory. If some other swimmer from some other country took gold, a U.S. swimmer was invariably on the podium to receive silver or bronze. "It was inspiring to watch," Hall said. "So many people came up with personal bests. Some of the most inspiring performances were from people who didn't get medals, who finished fifth in the best times of their lives."
On the fifth day of swimming, Hall was on the medal stand again, to receive a bronze for the 100 freestyle. The winner was Pieter van den Hoogenband, 27, of the Netherlands, who set the world record in the semifinals. Van den Hoogenband, also with a gold and the world record in the 200 freestyle, shared honors as the meet's individual star with teammate Inge de Bruijn, who won gold and set world records in the 100 butterfly and the 50 and the 100 free. The two swimmers were coached by the same Dutchman, 31-year-old Jacco Verhaeren, and that brought out the familiar international distress flags for drugs.
How had one man developed two overpowering swimmers? What was the secret? Wasn't de Bruijn, at 27, a bit old for the boost in her performance? (In a two-week span in May she tied or broke six world records.) How had van den Hoogenband pulled so far away from the competition? The questions were asked.
"It's sad," said Verhaeren, who is also de Bruijn's boyfriend. "If you swim fast, you're treated like a criminal. How do you prove to people that you are clean? There is no way. I just came on the bus with Inge to the pool, and she read one of these stories and was crying. Why should someone be crying on the way to the Olympics to swim for a gold medal? She said maybe she shouldn't swim so fast and then the stories would stop. I told her, 'No, then you're giving in to all these people.' I tell you this: If one of my swimmers ever tested positive for drugs, you would never see me on a pool deck again."