The Champion Who Never Was: Part 1 of 2

Allison Wagner came second to Michelle de Bruin in the 400m IM final in Atlanta. She has never got over it, writes Johnny Watterson. When Allison Wagner’s mother arrived at the airport in Florida on Monday, she told her daughter of the fate of Michelle Smith de Bruin, the final chapter, the disgraceful end to her swimming career. There was no surprise or joy, simply clarity. To those in the sport, the news was three years in the coming. Wagner now says with an air of world weary resignation that the case has “always been there on my mind.”

In 1996, the then 18-year-old had been leading going into the last 100 meters of the Olympic 400m individual medley final in Atlanta. She, and the rest of the swimming world, believed that the race would be a straight contest between herself and the elegant Hungarian champion, Krisztina Egerszegi. But it wasn’t Egerszegi who kicked in the last quarter to power up from behind and dramatically pull away. De Bruin took the gold medal in four minutes 39.18 seconds, almost three seconds faster than Wagner and her rival.

Since then the American has dropped out of the sport and received treatment for the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia nervosa. She is now deciding whether international swimming can still play any part in her fractured life. A career in the pool and at 21, no inclination towards every athlete’s Holy Grail, the Sydney Olympic Games next year.

“It is tiring for me to even think about devoting so many hours, so many days, seven days a week, seven or eight hours a day to training – it’s tiring just to think. I question now whether it is worth it. I went to Atlanta having a very good shot. I was there and I was ready to win. The problem is that I don’t know if I can go through with that again,” she says.

The sport of swimming is no stranger to high achievers who fall victim to their own heightened sense of failure or low self-worth. The unrelenting training regime, the demands of career coaches and the surrogate parental role they assume over their elite swimmers as well as the pressure to perform have all contributed to the erosion of the health of those within the sport. De Bruin, despite her chanting denials, may also be a victim.

In Wagner’s case, the fact that de Bruin beat her has never been far from her thoughts. Having resolutely believed all along that she was cheated has simply added to her considerable problems. As only the most driven athlete can comprehend, she speaks of the Atlanta Olympic final and it’s part in her catastrophic downturn in terms of deep loss.

“The Olympics are a big part of anyone’s life. This decision has not closed a chapter in my life. Not at all. The decision (the CAS upholding de Bruin’s four-year ban) won’t bring any closure at all to me. It is reassuring, but it doesn’t change anything for me. Thirty years from now, she will show her grandchildren her gold medal. I will show my grandchildren silver.

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