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Hometown Cheers Irish Swimmer

Associated Press Writer
Saturday, July 27, 1996 6:51 am EDT

RATHCOOLE, Ireland (AP) -- The elbow-to-rib crowd cheered with unbridled pride as their hometown heroine, swimmer Michelle Smith, took the stage on televisions in every corner of Rathcoole's Poitin Stil pub.

Smith didn't win her fourth Olympic gold medal as many expected Friday, but her Irish fans cheered wildly one last time as she emerged from the pool to explain why she finished third in the 200-meter butterfly final.

As Smith said on TV that she ``was just too tired'' from the week's competition, more than 1,000 revelers watching a big screen in the parking lot outside sang the Beatles' ``Michelle.''

Inside someone exclaimed: ``By gosh she's honest!''

Rathcoole, a town of 5,000 people southwest of Dublin with a minimarket, four suddenly raucous pubs and no swimming pool, can't believe it reared the freckled redhead who has been the unexpected star of the Olympics.

The town's main street is strung with bunting and banners in English and Gaelic reading ``Congratulations Michelle,'' ``Our Golden Girl'' and ``You're Simply the Best.''

People in the thatched-roof Poitin Stil (pronounced PAW-cheen still), which dates to 1649, are already planning for the biggest party in their town's history when Smith and her family return next week.

``She's our golden girl three times over. Now she's our bronze beauty too,'' John Reardon said.

The unsubstantiated suggestions that Smith might have won her medals because of performance-enhancing drugs have infuriated Ireland, Catholic south and Protestant north alike. Even the pro-British News Letter of Belfast on Friday condemned ``the `stars and gripes' attempts by Americans to devalue her glory with wild allegations.''

Hearing a reporter's American accent was enough to send a few patrons into swearing fits about U.S. xenophobia. Others were polite, but still pointed.

``The Americans' criticism of Michelle has been shocking,'' said Esther O'Brien, proprietor of a Rathcoole bed and breakfast, who has set her alarm to catch each of Smith's post-midnight performances. ``America wins so many medals, and Ireland's such a wee country. Why can't they just be happy and glad for us?''

Smith's success has had a profound impact in the Irish Republic, a nation of 3.5 million with little Olympic history. Heavyweight boxer Michael Carruth's gold medal in 1992 was the first since Ronnie Delaney's victory in the 1,500 meters in Melbourne in 1956. There had never been an Irish multiple medal winner in any previous games.

``Michelle is a glorious hero,'' Delaney said. ``The sharing of her experience by the Irish public -- I don't think we'll ever anything like it again.''

© Copyright 1996 The Associated Press

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