Is Michelle Smith the Greatest Irish Woman of All Time?

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 22. HOLY Self-Delusion, Batman! The Joker has struck again!

At first I thought it was a joke – and not a particularly funny one at that. Then I started checking. I did a little googling, made a few calls and – to my absolute amazement — found it appeared to be true.

“Not so fast,” I mumbled to myself. “Not so fast.” Maybe it wasn’t a joke. Maybe it was a hoax.

Yes, that’s it! A diabolical hoax. After all, “War of the Worlds” will soon be in your neighborhood theater and perhaps Stephen Spielberg had decided to commemorate Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of an invasion by Martians with an equally improbable scenario.

And then I recalled what Will Rogers said. Or, at least, what Willie would have said if he were still around. “Never underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion,” he probably would have muttered in his beer. “Or the human capacity for tribal delusion.”

What event could possibly bring about all this soul-searching? Just this:

One of the most popular shows on RTE, Radio Ireland, has been conducting a poll of its listeners to determine who is the greatest woman in Irish history.

As of last night, the leader was none other than Michelle Smith de Bruin!. Yes, Virginia, that Michelle Smith de Bruin – she of the unprecedented improvements, of the three Olympic gold medals in Atlanta.

The same Michelle Smith de Bruin who failed a surprise drug test in January 1998, producing a urine sample that not only featured the steroid, androstenedione (that’s “andro” for you Mark McGwire fans) but enough whiskey to kill her, had it made its way into her urine sample through the usual route.

For those of you too young to recall, and those needing a refresher course, in 1996, Michelle Smith was a 26 year-old, hard-working, mid-level international swimmer for her native Ireland. She was also remarkably consistent, with best times of around 4:24 for the 400-meter freestyle and 4:54 for the 400-meter individual medley.

Then she married Erik De Bruin, a Dutch discus thrower banned for four years from his own sport for doping. Erik became her coach, and Michelle’s times began dropping.

At the Atlanta Games, she won the 400 free in 4:07.25, the 200 IM in 2:13.93 (over Canada’s Marianne Limpert) and the 400 IM in 4:39.18 (ahead of the USA’s Allison Wagner). She also just missed adding a fourth gold in the 200 fly, finishing a stroke behind the Aussie duo of Susie O’Neill and Petria Thomas in 2:09.89

Knowledgeable swimming observers had no doubt she was doping, but she passed all doping tests and returned to the Emerald Isle a national hero. Only a few brave journalistic souls dared raise questions about Michelle’s performance – unprecedented in Irish history. These naysayers were branded “unpatriotic’ and some were threatened.

It all came tumbling down that wintry day in January of ’98, when a panicked Smith de Bruin was compelled to produce a urine sample.

Even after the results were known, many of her compatriots continued to argue that it was anti-Irish prejudice that motivated those who were defaming ‘our Michelle.”

The FINA Doping Panel, however, was having none of it. It found her guilty and banned her from the sport for four years. When it was appealed, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the decision.

Disgraced, Smith de Bruin never apologized for her actions and disappeared from public view. But she went on to graduate from Law School and is now a practicing barrister in Dublin.

Meanwhile, RTE officials are at a loss to explain the phenomenon that has its listeners ranking the fallen heroine as the greatest woman in Irish history.

According to the most recent count, Smith-de Bruin had 17.8 percent of the vote. In second place was Nano Nagle, who pioneered education for girls more than 200 years ago. Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first head of state and, more recently, head of the UN’s Human Rights Commission was third.

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