The 50 final on the seventh night of swimming was van den Hoogenband's chance to add a third gold. He was the second-fastest qualifier, behind Hall. Ervin was third. Alexander Popov of Russia, the longtime king of the event and the world-record holder (21.64), was fourth and looking to become the first man to win gold medals in any individual event in three straight Games. Any of the four had a solid chance to win.
"Do you know who worries me the most?" Gary Hall Sr. asked before the race. " Anthony Ervin. I've said from the moment we got here that he's the one to watch. Gary thinks so too."
Hall Sr. was happy simply to be at the race. Suffering from the flu earlier in the week, he went into endotoxic shock in the middle of the night. An ophthalmologist, Hall knew what was happening. His blood pressure dropped in a hurry. He became very weak. He lay on the floor, told his wife to call an ambulance and knew that the next 30 minutes would determine whether he lived or died. His body either would handle the shock or not. Though he would be rushed to the hospital, he knew the battle would take place within his body and would not be controlled by an outside force.
"I was in that ambulance, and I was thinking about Ron Karnaugh, the swimmer whose father died at the opening ceremonies in Barcelona," Hall Sr. said. "I was wondering, crazy as it sounds, whether Gary would still swim his races if I died. That's how serious it was. But by the time I got to the hospital I was fine. My body handled the shock."
Two nights later he settled in with the rest of the crowd at the pool. What would happen? There was his son, flexing muscles, throwing an imaginary uppercut during introductions. There was Ervin, who thought he'd be nervous but felt oddly at ease, another swim meet, another pool, ready to race. There was van den Hoogenband, Popov.... Bang!
The race was the usual explosion of froth and flailing. There was no conservation of energy, virtually no breathing. The only strategy was to go as fast as you could. Hall got the best start. Ervin caught him. Van den Hoogenband was close. Popov was flying. Ervin...Hall...Hall... Ervin... van den Hoogenband? Popov? They all reached the finish as if they were carried by one large wave.
They turned...and looked. "I started out just trying to make the team," Ervin said afterward. "A month ago that was in doubt. Now I'm at the top of the mountain."
"It took me a while to figure out what had happened," Hall Jr. said. "At first I thought I'd tied with van den Hoogenband. Then I saw it was Anthony. If I had to share the gold with anyone, I'm glad it was him."
Two men. Two gold medals. Small world.