By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 17 -- Eight years ago, Dara Torres became the oldest swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. Twice, in Sydney, she was part of a victorious relay team. What better way to retire, at age 33?
There was Torres, though, on the block Sunday at the National Aquatics Center, a 41-year-old somehow swimming for gold in the women's 50-meter freestyle. It was a race she led at the midway point, one she might have held on to for what could have been a story to rival that of Michael Phelps.
At the last moment, though, Germany's Britta Steffen reached to the wall and got there first, an Olympic record of 24.06 seconds. Torres was second by .01 second, a silver medal that became the 12th medal of a career that has spanned five Olympics. Torres then took another medal -- her third silver of these Games -- by swimming the anchor leg of the women's 4x100-meter medley relay. In that event, she joined teammates Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni and Christine Magnuson in breaking the world record, only to have rival Australia break it by more to win gold.
There have been no shortage of stellar performances at the Water Cube this week, though each and every one of them have been overshadowed by the brilliance of Phelps, the 23-year-old from Baltimore County who has a record eight gold medals in a single Games.
Coughlin, for instance, won six medals -- and somehow managed to do it quietly. Her gold came in the 100-meter backstroke, but she added silvers in two relays and three bronzes in individual events.
And of all the non-Phelps performances here, perhaps the most remarkable was the one that came from Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain on Saturday in the women's 800-meter freestyle. American Janet Evans, perhaps the greatest female distance swimmer ever and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, set her mark in 1989 in a meet in Tokyo. Since then, as every other record set in a 50-meter pool fell, it stood, the oldest standard on the books.
"We knew she was fast," U.S. women's coach Jack Bauerle said. "But that just shows exactly how fast she was. It's incredible."
Adlington was supposed to be pushed by Great Falls's Kate Ziegler, a two-time world champion in the event, and Katie Hoff, who beat Ziegler at the U.S. trials. But neither qualified for the final. So Adlington pushed herself. She was first at the 100-meter mark, then led at every turn thereafter, under Evans's pace the whole way. She finished in 8 minutes 14.10 seconds -- 2.12 seconds better than Evans's enduring mark.
"It's always been a goal of mine," Adlington said. "It's always been in the back of my mind. I dropped three seconds from trials and it was a lot to ask, but I didn't expect it at all. It's just amazing. It's just such a dream, to be honest."
Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, too, had one more amazing swim in her. After barely losing out on gold medals in the 100 backstroke to Coughlin and both the 200 and 400 individual medleys to Australia's Stephanie Rice, she crushed American Margaret Hoelzer in the 200 backstroke, leading at every turn, finishing .99 of a second ahead in 2:05.24.
Coventry, who went to Auburn and trains at Texas, still has her family back in strife-ridden Zimbabwe. Earlier in the week, she said family struggles -- the death of a grandparent and her mother's breast cancer -- had prevented her from concentrating on the problems in her homeland, where the government of Robert Mugabe has been accused of all manner of corruption.
"I have so much else going on," she said.
On Saturday, though, she reveled in taking the medal stand with the Zimbawean anthem playing. "Everyone back home was so excited and so supportive of me coming into my race," she said.
Also stoking pride back home was Brazil's Cesar Cielo Filho, who shocked a loaded field in the men's 50-meter freestyle by winning in 21.30 seconds, an Olympic record. In doing so ahead of runner-up Amaury Leveaux and bronze-winner Alain Bernard, both of France, he also topped world record holder Eamon Sullivan of Australia, who finished sixth.