20 Years On: When Inge de Bruijn Set Six World Records In 14 Days On Way To Olympic Glory

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Inge de Bruijn - Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer Archive ©

Inge de Bruijn‘s 53.80sec World Record over 100m freestyle in Sheffield 20 years ago to the week marked the fifth of five world records she clocked in 8 days and 6 in 14 days. If her pace, including two global standards in half an hour this day, May 26, was unexpected at the time, so too was the Dutch sprinter’s reaction when asked “where did that come from?”

De Bruijn’s blast, which took down the controversial 54.01 mark that had been established by China’s Le Jingyi at Rome 1994 World titles, marked her fifth global standard in eight days. There was one to come in early June on the way to triple gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games later that year but it was De Bruijn’s efforts and then her reaction in Sheffield that drew the eye.

Here was a swimmer who, on the back of a China Crisis of doping-driven results, the suspension of Michelle Smith de Bruin (no relation) and other high-profile anti-doping scandals, knew that the significant advances she had made on sprint freestyle and butterfly between May 20 and May 28 would, fairly or otherwise, attract the question: “How?”

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Inge de Bruijn in 2015

On May 20 in Monte Carlo, the sprinter from Barendrecht clocked 25.83 in the 50m butterfly, the first of six world records in 14 days.

On this very day 20 years ago in Sheffield, six days after her flying dash, De Bruijn lowered the mark to 25.64. Just half an hour later, the 26-year-old equalled the global 50m freestyle record that had also stood to Le Jingji since Rome 1994, at 24.51.

That 1994 season had seen several of Le’s training partners and teammates test positive for steroids and other banned substances.

Indeed, within a month of the Rome World Championships, when landing at Hiroshima, Japan, for the Asian Games, seven of Li’s China teammates tested positive in spot checks and were banned for periods of two to four years. Almost four years would go by before Li’s coach Zhou Ming was handed what at the time was announced as a lifetime ban. Some years later, when he appeared on a pool deck at a swim meet in China attended by overseas coaches, the story was that he had been handed an eight-year ban, which had by then expired.

Inge De Bruin at Sydney 2000

As De Bruijn per towards matching Le over 50m freestyle, this is what the all-time top 10 looked like, with three among four Chinese sprinters in the top 3 slots of a top 10 tainted by four Chinese sprinters and two swimmers who would test positive in their careers, as denoted by the *:

1 – 24.51 WORLD94 Jingyi Le,CHN LCM94
2 – 24.71 CHNOCT Ying Shan,CHN LCM97
3 – 24.79 OLYMPICS Wenyi Yang,CHN LCM92
4 – 24.87 OLYMPICS Amy Van Dyken,USA LCM96
5 – 24.88 NEDLCJUN Inge de Bruijn,NED LCM99
6 – 25.08 OLYMPICS Yong Zhuang,CHN LCM92
7 – 25.10 WORLD94 Natalia Mesheryakova*,RUS LCM94
8 – 25.14 OLYMPICS Sandra Volker,GER LCM96
9  – 25.20 USAMAR Jenny Thompson,USA LCM92
10 – 25.23 OLYMPICS Angel Martino*,USA LCM92

It was against that backdrop of crisis and the accompanying doubt and suspicion in the sport that De Bruijn made her breakthrough.

Inge de Bruijn Warms Up For Triple Olympic Gold

On May 27, 2000, for World record No 4 within a week, she shattered the 100m butterfly world record in 56.69. Sheffield on a cold and blustery day in spring.

It was as if a tidal wave had washed over world swimming: not only was the average time of the fastest ten women over 59sec at the time, but De Bruijn had wiped 1.19sec off the world record that had stood to American World champion of 1998 Jenny Thompson.

De Bruijn’s new best marked an improvement from a personal high of 58.49 in 1999, after 59.28 in 1998. Only the 57.93 of Mary T. Meagher (USA) in 1981, a mega-milestone that Thompson had confined to World-Record history at the Pan Pacific Championships in 1997 with a 57.88 victory – had made such an impact in the history of the event.

At the time, great leaps of that order were extremely rare among swimmers in their mid-20s and the last example the wider world had tuned into was that of Ireland’s Michelle Smith de Bruin, the triple Olympic champion of 1996 who in 1998 was handed a suspension for tampering with a doping-control sample after the case against her, first revealed by this author in The Times, London, was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Smith de Bruin’s appeal hearing was the first ever to be held in public. The second unfolded only last November, when Sun Yang, of China, and a FINA decision to issue him with a caution faced a challenge from the World Anti-Doping Agency that resulted in an eight-year suspension being imposed on the Olympic 200m freestyle champion and 1500m World record holder on February 28 this year.

The latter part of Smith de Bruin’s name is that of her husband Erik, the Dutch thrower suspended by the IAAF for four years in 1993 for a failed drugs test. There is no connection between the thrower without a “J” in his name and the swimmer with the “J” in hers.

Inge de Bruijn, left, chats to Franziska van Almsick on deck at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Inge de Bruijn, left, chats with Franziska van Almsick on deck at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens – by Patrick B. Kraemer

It was the day after Inge De Bruijn made it four world record in 6 days, two of them in the past 24 hours, that she became the first woman inside 54sec over 100m freestyle. Her 53.80 was faster than the time in which the men’s Olympic title was won in 1960. The Dutch sprinter’s assault on the record books unfolded just nine months after she had won what was then the biggest medal of her career, a silver in 55.24sec behind Susan Rolph (GBR), on 55.03, at the European Championships in Istanbul in 1999.

May 2000, down at the deep end of Ponds Forge in Sheffield, beyond the diving pool where folk were still looking up at the board looking a touch bewildered, I sat with De Bruijn to ask her to describe the building blocks of her progress.

Her first reaction was the one that recognised how it all might be perceived:

“I don’t know where those swims came from.”

She then burst into tears. Not a trickle. More a flood. But she managed to speak on:

“I’m frightened to call my coach (Paul Bergen) – he won’t believe it. But I’ve worked so hard and that’s all I can say. I never used to work hard. I wasn’t dedicated. I had no motivation. I’ve turned myself around.”

De Bruijn looked like a woman waking up to the new status and expectation she would take to her blocks at Sydney 2000. She added:

“I’ve stuck to a strict diet, I’ve been pulling my own weight up ropes; doing things in training that I never did before. I thought I could be better before [in previous years] but I never believed it. Paul Bergen showed me what was possible.”

Another Troubling Backdrop

Bergen was based in Oregon at the time. He had coached several very big names in the sport down the years. His status in coaching had since been marred by accusations of abuse.

Deena Deardurff (Schmidt), a butterfly ace and gold-medal-winning member of the 1972 USA Olympic swim team in Munich, Shared with authorities and members of the swim community in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, her story of abuse from the age of 11. Her former teammate Melissa Halmi also said Bergen had abused her, in 1973-74.

Deardurff brought her story, long known in swimming circles, into the public domain in 2010, while Halmi brought her accusation to light in 2013. Both women said that they had been told, as teenagers, by Bergen that he had been “in love” with them. They came forward at a time when the sport inn the United States was reeling from convictions for the likes of Andy King and revelations that hundreds of coaches had been added to a “banned for life”.

In 2013, Paul Bergen’s name was removed from the title of a meet that was rebranded  after 14 years as the “Paul Bergen Junior International” swim meet to the Thunderbolt Junior International Swim Meet.

An anniversary file celebrating six world records can do without mention of events disconnected with De Bruijn but the sprinter who ended her career with four golds atop eight Olympic medals became an ambassador for a campaign against sexual abuse in The Netherlands in 2015.

Inge De Bruijn launched the campaign under the banner” “Sexually inappropriate behaviour. Make a point of it!” The awareness drive was aimed particularly at realms where young people work under the guidance of adults in specific conditions, realms such as sport. The campaign was launched in a local pool. Said de Bruijn at the time

“Unfortunately, [there are] people in positions of authority who abuse those [they feel to be] lesser’ than they are, people who are being bullied, belittled, and sometimes even sexually harassed. I am an ambassador for the campaign … because I think it is very important that this vulnerable group of minors and the mentally disabled are protected and that this issue is being discussed openly.”

Back in 2000, Bergen was the man credited with turning the Dutch sprinter around.

The Turning Around Of The Career Of A “Lazy” Girl Left Off The Dutch Atlanta ’96 Olympic Squad 

Inge de Bruijn’s pre-Olympics bull run ended back home in Dratchen on June 4, 2000, with a 24.48 effort over 50m freestyle. She had even more impressive speed in her to come, her days of also-swam in the ranks of those aiming for the biggest of podiums about to end.

Inge de Bruijn turned her back on relative mediocrity on the way to Sydney 2000 - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Inge de Bruijn turned her back on relative mediocrity on the way to Sydney 2000 – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Before 1999, De Bruijn’s only medal at world long-course level was won in 1991 as a young member of the Dutch 4x100m freestyle quartet that claimed bronze at the World Championships in Perth.

The same year, she won silver and bronze medals over 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle at the European Championships but then, in her own words, was “too lazy” to do the work necessary to go further.

A finalist in the 50m freestyle at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, De Bruijn was dropped from the Dutch team for the Games in Atlanta because she “lacked motivation” in the eyes of coaches and selectors. The roots of De Bruijn’s success may be traced to that decision. It was in the wake of watching the action in Atlanta on a television screen at home that she resolved to seek Bergen’s guidance.

At the World Championships in Perth, 1998, Inge De Bruijn finished 7th over 100m butterfly in 1:00.09 and 8th in the 100m freestyle, in 56.49. A year later, she swam inside the world record over 50m butterfly and the European record over 100m freestyle but neither of those efforts was recognised because she was not asked to submit for anti-doping tests. The missing tests and related paperwork meant that her marks could not be ratified, the European Swimming League (LEN) citing as part of its decision the rule that includes “…shall submit to doping control within 24 hours after a race…”.

Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn jubilates after taking the gold in the women's 50m Freestyle final at the Athens Olympic Aquatic Centre, Saturday 21 August 2004. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

Inky – by PBK

Come Sydney 2000, the fate of bygone pace seemed irrelevant: De Bruijn ploughed over the pride and pace of opponents with three of the most decisive victories in swimming history:

  • she defeated Therese Alshammar (SWE) over 50m freestyle with a world record of 24.32
  • got the better of the same rival over 100m freestyle (53.83 to 54.33, after setting a world record of 53.77 in the semi-final),
  • her triumph in the 100m butterfly by 1.36sec over Martina Moravcova (SVK), in a world record of 56.61 remains the biggest margin of victory seen since the event was introduced in 1956.

The Six World Records In A Fortnight

Inge de Bruijn’s Six Sizzlers
May 20 50 butterfly 25.83 Monte Carlo
May 26 50 butterfly 25.64 Sheffield
50 freestyle 24.51 Sheffield (ties existing record)
May 27 100 butterfly 56.69 Sheffield
May 28 100 freestyle 53.80 Sheffield
June 4 50 freestyle 24.48 Dordrecht

A tale Of Technique: Brent Rushall Comes To De Bruijn’s Defence  

Inge de Bruijn at Athens 2004

Brent Rushall, a professor at San Diego State University, who once kept an online list of all doping cases called the “Hall of Shame” and whose expert articles on the sport of swimming could be found at his own website, Coaching Science Abstracts and other sites, such as Swimming Science Journal. in the early days of digital, felt so moved by the questions De Bruijn faced as a result of the backdrop of the sport at the time of her progress that he issued the following press release:

Over the past two weeks, coaches and swimming enthusiasts have suggested the record swims in three events of Inge de Bruijn from Holland, have somehow been “tainted.” A veiled accusation of drugs, and similarities to Michelle de Bruin of Ireland have been raised.

Last year, Inge de Bruijn was ranked #1 in the world in one event and #2 in the others. She is in her third year of a comeback from retirement in 1996.

It is common to see “mature” women reenter sport and perform as well as, and if not better, than they have ever done before. The American 34-year old, Dara Torres, is currently ranked #2 and #3 in the world in 50- and 100-m freestyles respectively. That is after a seven-year retirement, and a shorter period of swimming since retirement than Inge de Bruijn! What de Bruijn is doing is not that unusual.

It is worthwhile to view Inge de Bruijn’s swims in perspective. If the world records of the men and women in 1980/81 are used as a basis to determine how much de Bruijn’s recent swims improved the marks, some interesting facts are revealed.

From 1980/81 until the most recent records the following are true:

  • In 100m freestyle, the men’s record has improved from 49.36 to 48.21 (2.33%), while the women’s has improved from 54.79 to de Bruijn’s 53.80 (1.8%).
  • In 100m butterfly, the men’s record has improved from 53.81 to 51.81 (3.72%), while the women’s has improved from 57.93 to de Bruijn’s 56.69 (2.14%).

In both events that Inge de Bruijn has been viewed suspiciously, the amount of improvement she produced was less than the men (both Australian-trained swimmers) achieved over a similar period.

There is a simpler explanation for this improvement. It is a commentary on the status of women’s swimming in the world. Typically, women have been swimming with poor techniques that have held back their gender’s “progress” over the years. It is possible that Inge de Bruijn is just swimming “better” than the others have over the past two decades?

Respectfully submitted,

Brent S. Rushall

Later in the year, we will look at what happened next when Inge de Bruijn arrived with great expectations at Sydney 2000.

The pace and place where De Bruijn left the clock coming out of Sydney 2000 with three gold medals around her neck aged 27 paved the way to a new era in women’s sprint swimming, her dashing dash on freestyle and her 100m ‘fly both shockwave moments on the pathway of progress in the pool:

  • 50 free – still 6th all-time (textile) at 24.13. In 2015, De Bruijn’s world record of 2000 remains 10th fastest all-time in textile
  • 100 free – 49th all-time in 2020
  • 100 ‘fly – still 5th all-time at 56.61 in 2015, it remains 9th best ever in textile and 11th counting shiny suits. Mary T. Meagher’s 57.93 of 1981 is 72nd in textile, 83rd counting shiny efforts.

A reminder of that 56.61 from the year 2000:

 

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