The scoreboard was a confusing jumble of numbers and names and results. Turning around, squinting, looking at the wall at the far end of the pool at the Aquatics Centre last Friday night, Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin were puzzled. The scoreboard had too much information. Or maybe not enough. LANE 3. ERVIN. USA. 21.98 (1). LANE 4. HALL JR. USA. 21.98. (1). Something didn't compute.
I won! each American swimmer thought at first glance.
Wait a minute, he won, each thought at second glance.
Wait a minute, each thought, his chest still heaving from the effort in the 50-meter freestyle final, the crowd of 17,500 still roaring as everyone began to understand what had just happened. We both won?
In all the hours, all the days, in the months they had trained together in Phoenix and in Colorado Springs and, finally, in Sydney, Ervin and Hall had never imagined a dead heat. They had worked with each other and against each other, half friends and half adversaries, getting ready to take on the rest of the world by taking on each other every day. Who ever could have predicted such a long journey could end at the same time and the same place?
Two men from the same pool. Two gold medals. Small world. In a surprising show of U.S. dominance in the eight days of swimming competition—14 gold medals, eight silver, 11 bronze—this was the funkiest surprise of them all.
As part of Phoenix Swim Club coach Mike Bottom's Sprint Team 2000, consisting of a dozen sprinters from assorted countries preparing for the Olympics, Hall and Ervin followed the same program. They ate the same Platinum Performance vitamins that had propelled Fusaichi Pegasus to victory in the Kentucky Derby. They listened to the same sports psychologists. They hit the same speed bags for coordination. They raced. They raced and raced.
There were no standings kept for these every-day races, no results that lasted for anything longer than the moment. There was only the constant friction of competition, the push and shove against each other.
Hall was the resident talent, 26 years old, 6'6", 216 pounds, a silver medalist in the 50 and the 100 in Atlanta in 1996. Always known as a flake, a hey-dude character, with his headphones sending Grateful Dead music through his ears, he had modified that act heading into these Olympics. He was trying to reassemble a swim career that had been broken apart by a mistake (a three-month suspension in 1998 after testing positive for marijuana use caused him to be dropped by his sponsor, Speedo) and misfortune (the onset of diabetes in March '99). He was injecting himself with insulin up to eight times a day, trying to maintain a high energy level while monitoring his blood-sugar levels. He had to take a blood-sugar reading every 30 minutes, pricking his thumb so often that he figured he could draw blood simply by squeezing the thumb with his other hand, the blood squirting out like juice from a grape.
Ervin was the newcomer, a 19-year-old Berkeley sophomore from Valencia, Calif. He had virtually no international experience and looked small and slender for a sprinter at 6'3" and 165 pounds. That did not stop him from being confident. He had won the 50 and the 100 at this year's NCAA championships, setting a short-course world record in the 50, and was ready to hit the big stage. Bottom called him "the best racer I've ever seen." The other members of Sprint Team 2000 had different words.