By Sarah Tolar and Stephen J. Thomas
ATHENS, August 20. AMERICAN sprinter, Gary Hall, Jr., has done it. Again.
The skeptics were on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if Hall could back up his strong words with a strong swim. And, once again, Hall proved that he can talk the talk...AND walk the walk. Or, in his case, swim the swim.
Flamboyant as ever, the 29 year-old -- arguably the greatest sprinter in US history -- appeared on pool deck with a silk robe and boxer shorts adorned with the Stars and Stripes.
Then it was down to business.
The 50 was its usual turbulent, frothy self, but when all was said and done, Hall, swimming in lane 2, did precisely what he had to do -- he got his hand on the wall first.
He didn't exactly blow away the field. In fact his margin of victory was .01 sec -- that is, one measly hundredth of a second. That hundredth of a second, a fleeting moment barely measurable, a flap of a butterfly's delicate wing, was big, as in HUMUNGOUS!
It made him one of only a handful of swimming Olympians to repeat his triumph. In 2000, Hall and his Phoenix Swim Club teammate Anthony Ervin tied for the gold. This time around, Hall touched in 21.93 seconds, just 2-hundredths off Alex Popov's Olympic record, to edge Croatia's Duje Draganja, 21.94. Ironically, Draganja was Ervin's teammate at the University of California.
Third place went to South Africa's Roland Schoeman in 22.02, just off his 21.99 from semis. The Springbok wound up with a gold (4x100m free relay), silver (100 free) and bronze in Athens.
Unfortunately, the duel with Russia's Czar of Sprinting, Alex Popov, never materialized here. Popov, who won this 50 at the 1992 and '96 Games, failed to get through the prelims.
Stefan Nystrand of Sweden touched fourth, just six-hundreths behind Schoeman, with a 22.08. American, Jason Lezak, who was looking to rebound after a disappointing 100 freestyle, finished fifth, with a time of 22.11. The entire field was separated by only four tenths of a second.
Hall's win tonight gave him his ninth medal and fifth gold.
He said after his race, "It was the greatest race ever. i'm so excited it has not sunk in yet. I was so keen to defend my gold from Sydney, but it's always harder to defend than to win, so I'm really proud," he said.
Perhaps it was because of the disappointment with not swimming in the final of the relay earlier in the week. "I tried not to say anything but I took it very personally, I wanted to be part of the team that reclaimed the gold in Sydney."
Speaking about his unique style Hall said, "There are still people who doubt me. They find it hard to take me seriously sometimes but I consistently get results. It's OK to have fun. Hard work can be fun. Fun is an important part of my success."
When asked if he would consider the swimming on until the Beijing Olympic he said, "Yeah, sure, why not? They told me it couldn't be done in 1996 because I was too immature and in 2000 because I had diabetes and this time because I was too old, so why not? Defiance is kind of fun."
Hall also gave great praise to coach Mike Bottom for his contribution to his success and sprint freestyle in general, highlighted by the fact that both Hall and Draganja and the joint winner with Hall in Sydney, Anthony Ervin, trained under Bottom.
Draganja was very happy with his performance, "one hundredth of a second from gold, what more can I ask for?"
Shoeman said of his swim, "I am a little bit disappointed but bronze in the Olympics is a great thing. Maybe I would have got to the wall first if I had got a better start."?
Men 50m Freestyle Finals
Record Name NOC Location Date
WR 21.64 POPOV Alexander RUS Moscow 16 JUN 2000
OR 21.91 POPOV Alexander RUS Barcelona 30 JUL 1992
Event No: 25
1 HALL Gary USA 0.71 21.93
2 DRAGANJA Duje CRO 0.69 21.94
3 SCHOEMAN Roland Mark RSA 0.62 22.02
4 NYSTRAND Stefan SWE 0.70 22.08
5 LEZAK Jason USA 0.63 22.11
6 HAWKE Brett AUS 0.71 22.18
7 VOLYNETS Oleksandr UKR 0.83 22.26
8 ILES Salim ALG 0.65 22.37
Results: 2004 Olympic Games