ATHENS, Aug. 18 -- Their names are Manuela Stellmach, Astrid Strauss, Anke Mohring and Heike Friedrich. Scarcely a single swimmer at these Summer Olympics, and certainly not those from the United States, understands who they are, that they were part of the once-powerful East German athletic machine, back when there was such a thing.
Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, those four names remained on the back pages of books only swimming statisticians consult, matter-of-factly residing under the heading: world record, women's 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Since the day they swam the event -- 17 years ago Wednesday -- they were whispered in swimming circles, quietly at first, then with the volume turned up. The East Germans were drugged, people said. They cheated, people said. For those 17 years, the U.S. swimming community seethed.
Kaitlin Sandeno, who swam the final leg for the United States, celebrates among her 800-meter relay teammates after winning the gold medal in world-record time.
(Mark Baker - AP)
Until Wednesday night. In a startling gold medal-winning performance, the names Stellmach, Strauss, Mohring and Friedrich were replaced by Natalie Coughlin, Carly Piper, Dana Vollmer and Kaitlin Sandeno -- four young Americans who knew little about the history of the record, yet bubbled over with excitement after seizing it in convincing fashion.
"It's a huge deal," Coughlin said.
How huge, she didn't quite know. The four women, helped by a blistering first leg from Coughlin and a courageous anchor leg from Sandeno, turned in a time of 7 minutes 53.42 seconds -- a stunning 2.05 seconds faster than the East Germans' mark.
There was so much that seemed surprising about all this. The record was the oldest world mark, male or female, on the books. Sandeno had to put behind her a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 200 butterfly just 45 minutes earlier. Yet when she touched the wall, her teammates hugged on the pool deck, then raced to the edge, squatting down. Sandeno looked at the scoreboard, then squealed to her teammates.
"I was like, 'That's a world record, right?' " Sandeno said. "Because there's a little 'WR' next to it."
Coughlin yelled that it was. But only after the medal ceremony -- when she had to report for a drug test -- did Sandeno really understand not only the world record, but the story behind it. An official told her how old the mark was, who had set it, and the rumors that had swirled.
"We're clean as can be," Sandeno said, "and we're so happy, and we're strong. It was amazing."
Swimming sages were well aware of the significance. Mark Schubert, the U.S. women's coach, said, "It feels really good to get that record off the books."
"It burned people a lot," Schubert said. "We all know the reason why, and we're very proud to have that record back."
They have it back because each swimmer swam an extraordinary leg. Coughlin is an exceptional 200 freestyler, but didn't swim the event here -- partly because of the way the schedule fell, and partly because she wanted to be ready for the relays. She was. Her split of 1:57.74 would have won the individual gold had it come in the 200 freestyle finals the previous night.
"This is what I wanted to do," said Coughlin, who already has a gold in the 100 backstroke. "This is a gold medal I really wanted."
The splits for both Vollmer (1:58.12) and Sandeno (1:58.17) were better than the time turned in by Federica Pellegrini of Italy, the silver medalist in the 200 free. Still, Schubert said quite casually, "We expected this kind of performance."
The same could be said of Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who came from behind to win gold in the 100-meter freestyle in 48.17 seconds, just out-touching South Africa's Roland Schoeman. Australia's Ian Thorpe, who beat both van den Hoogenband and American Michael Phelps in the 200 freestyle on Monday night, took bronze.
Phelps, the 19-year-old from Baltimore County who has five medals in five events, didn't win another Wednesday night -- by no fault of his own. He had no finals, yet still made history in the semis of the 200-meter individual medley by touching the wall in 1:58.52, an Olympic record. He'll go for his fourth gold, in that event, Thursday night.
"I think the hardest part's over," said Phelps, who seemed genuinely relaxed and happy.
There is, however, one blip in Phelps's pursuit of more gold. U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said Phelps almost certainly won't swim in the finals of the 400 medley relay. Phelps would be a candidate to swim the butterfly leg of the race, but teammate Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the event at the U.S. trials, setting a world record, and Reese said, "You kind of go off what you did at trials."
Complicating the matter, though, is that Crocker is having a poor meet. His slow first leg cost the United States in the 400 freestyle relay, and the team ended up with bronze. He then failed to qualify even for the semifinals of the 100 freestyle, and has been battling a sore throat. His signature event, though, is the butterfly, and Reese -- who coached Crocker at the University of Texas -- said he felt Crocker would be the right choice to swim in the final. Phelps can still win a gold medal in the event by swimming in the preliminaries Friday morning, though only those who swim in the final stand on the podium during the medal ceremony.
The final is Saturday, the last event of the meet. Should Crocker falter in the 100 butterfly on Friday night, Reese could alter his strategy. But Wednesday, he said, "Right now, I don't see it changing."
Japan's Kosuke Kitajima won his second gold medal of the Games on Wednesday, this time without controversy. Kitajima, already the champ in the 100 breaststroke, won the 200-meter version of the event in 2:09.44, beating Hungary's Daniel Gyurta and American Brendan Hansen. After winning the 100, American Aaron Peirsol accused Kitajima of using an illegal kick, a charge the Japanese dismissed. Wednesday, a swimmer was disqualified from the breaststroke final for employing such a tactic, but it was Australian Jim Piper, who wasn't considered a medal threat.
Hansen, who won silver in the 100, set the world record in the 200 last month at U.S. trials. His time of 2:10.87 Wednesday was 1.83 seconds off that mark. Yet he said he was far from disappointed.
"I left everything in the pool," Hansen said, "and I have absolutely no regrets. . . . It's so much pressure that [the media] put on us, it's tough for us to compete."
Yet that's exactly what the women on the 800 freestyle relay did -- compete. In the pool, they knew exactly what they were doing, even if the history evaded them. History be damned. Wednesday night called for hubris.
"We're pretty bad," Sandeno said. "We're some tough chicks."