Smith, Michelle

▪ 1997

      Prior to 1996, Ireland had won only five Olympic gold medals, and no medal (gold, silver, or bronze) had been won by Irish women. In one memorable week in July, Michelle Smith single-handedly changed all that at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. The 26-year-old swimmer from Rathcoole won the gold in three events—the 200-m individual medley, the 400-m individual medley, and the 400-m freestyle—and captured the bronze medal in the 200-m butterfly. She became a national hero and Ireland's most successful Olympian ever, a remarkable achievement in a nation that did not even have an Olympic-size pool for training. Her triumph, however, was somewhat tarnished by unsubstantiated rumours that she had used performance-enhancing drugs. Some observers questioned her dramatic improvements in time and pointed to her marriage to a Dutch discus thrower who had been suspended from international competition for steroid use. Smith passed all the pre- and post-Olympic drug tests, however, and no other evidence emerged of any illegal or unsportsmanlike activity.

      Smith was born in 1970 in Rathcoole, a village south of Dublin. She began swimming competitively at the age of 13, waking up at 5 AM to practice before school. Though she developed into one of Ireland's premier junior swimmers, Smith realized that without more advanced facilities and training techniques, she would never be able to compete at the international level. She went to the United States to attend school and swim at the University of Houston, Texas, where she graduated with a degree in communications. Her times steadily improved, and she made the Irish Olympic teams in 1988 and 1992. At both of those Games, however, she was eliminated in the preliminary rounds.

      In 1994 Smith moved to The Netherlands with her coach and future husband, Erik de Bruin, to prepare for the Atlanta Games. The next year she emerged as an elite athlete, winning the 200-m butterfly and the 200-m individual medley at the European championships. She continued to improve in 1996, taking 19 seconds off her best time in the 400-m freestyle. In response to questions about her sudden turnaround, Smith credited more sophisticated training techniques and a single-minded focus on swimming. She also pointed out that she was probably the most tested athlete in Irish history and that she had never tested positive for banned substances.

      An estimated one-half of Ireland's 3.6 million people stayed up past midnight to watch Smith's races on television. Following her Olympic triumph, she returned home to a hero's welcome at the Dublin airport, where thousands, including Irish Pres. Mary Robinson, waited in the rain to greet her. (JOHN H. MATHEWS)

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Universalium. 2010.

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