In lane 4, heat 10, qualifying heat, women's 50-meter freestyle, representing the Netherlands: Inge de Bruijn.
In lane 3, heat 1, qualifying heat, women's 50-meter freestyle, representing Equatorial Guinea: Paula Barila Bolopa,
De Bruijn, nearly six feet tall, has already won two gold medals and set two world records at these Olympics. Barila Bolopa, barely five feet, had never seen a 50-meter pool until this week.
De Bruijn, 27, trains in both Holland and Portland, Ore., with two world-class coaches, two masseuses, two physiologists, a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, an agent and a personal trainer. Barila Bolopa, 18, trains in the 20-meter pool of the three-story Hotel Hureca in Malabo, her home in Western Africa. That is, until the hotel guests want to use the pool. Then she swims in the ocean and her coach keeps an eye out for sharks.
De Bruijn loves the Olympic pool. "It's fast," she says. Barila Bolopa loves the Olympic pool. "It's easier to swim without always having to turn so often," she says.
De Bruijn is equipped with the best equipment science has developed: $250 Speedo FastSkin suit, proven to take as much as half a second off a 100-meter time; expensive goggles; lycrex hat; practice drag suit; and rubberized water-pumping cool-down suit. Barila Bolopa is equipped with almost nothing. She came to Sydney without a swimsuit. A week before the Games a volunteer drove her and her teammate, Eric Moussambani, to the Adidas outlet store in Sydney and bought them swimsuits, swim caps, warm-ups, flip-flops and towels.
De Bruijn's dive off the starting block, analyzed and improved by physicists, is an explosion of twitch and nerve. She is in the air .41 seconds after the gun fires, an almost clairvoyant head start. Barila Bolopa has never stood on a starting block. She fairly belly flops off it, then surfaces almost perpendicular to the water. If the depth of the pool weren't two meters, she might've touched the bottom with her feet. The other swimmers in her heat are already two lengths ahead.
De Bruijn's power makes you check for mermaid fins. She nearly hydroplanes across the water, seeming more to skim across it than through it. Her stroke and kick feed her down her lane so fast it looks as if she's being pulled by a high-speed winch. Perhaps it's some elaborate David Copperfield trick.
Barila Bolopa barely gets her head wet. She swims with her face fully out of the water the whole way, turning this way and that as her arms flail, her feet a good three feet beneath the surface and dropping.