- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

ATHENS — Gary Hall Jr. came up with another clutch performance in the Olympic pool last night, erasing some of his bitterness about being left off two U.S. relay teams.

Hall successfully defended his 50-meter freestyle title, winning in 21.93 seconds — quicker than he swam in tying countryman Anthony Ervin for the gold at the Sydney Games.

“I consider myself lucky to have placed first,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. It was a very fast field.”

So fast that two-time Olympic champion Alexander Popov of Russia and 2000 bronze medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands were eliminated in the preliminaries.

Hall won by one-hundredth of a second over training partner Duje Draganja of Croatia, with another training partner, Roland Schoeman of South Africa, taking the bronze.

He stared at the scoreboard, raised his arms in triumph, then climbed out of the pool and waited for each of his competitors. He hugged or shook hands with them all, including teammate Jason Lezak, who was fifth.

“If I could pick anyone to beat me, I would pick him,” Draganja said. “He’s a guy with an open heart, and he’s special in his own way.”

The 29-year-old Hall became the second-oldest American male swimmer to medal since 33-year-old Duke Kahanamoku earned a silver in the 100 freestyle in 1924.

“I was very emotional walking out for the medal ceremony, and I usually don’t get that way,” said Hall, who tossed his bouquet to wife Elizabeth in the stands. “I don’t know why. I haven’t figured that out.”

Also looking on was his father, Gary Sr. They are the first father-son duo to make three Olympic teams.

Meanwhile, Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe won her third medal of the Games, capturing gold in the 200 backstroke. She led all the way and finished in 2:09.19. Russia’s Stanislava Komarova took silver in 2:09.72, while the bronze went to Reiko Nakamura of Japan in 2:09.88.

Coventry swims at Auburn University, although her family remains in the Zimbabwe capital of Harare. She already had a silver from the 100 back and a bronze from the 200 individual medley.

American Margaret Hoelzer finished fifth.

The United States lost its hold on the women’s 800 freestyle when Ai Shibata of Japan won gold in 8:25.54 — the first major international medal of her career. Laure Manaudou of France claimed silver in 8:24.96, her third medal of these Games.

The U.S. team did manage a medal when Diana Munz beat out countrywoman Kalyn Keller for the bronze, overtaking her in the final meters. Munz’s time was 8:26.61 — just 36-hundredths ahead of Keller in the grueling race, the longest on the women’s program.

The Americans had won the event in five consecutive Olympics, including back-to-back titles by Janet Evans in 1988 and 1992 and Brooke Bennett in 1996 and 2000. Tiffany Cohen started the streak at the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Munz had no complaints about finishing third. She had expected to swim the 800 at the Sydney Games, only to get squeezed out of a spot at the U.S. trials by just five-hundredths of a second.

“It was a long wait, but I’ve done it,” Munz said. “I trained four years … so of course I’m excited and happy that I’m third.”

Hall has built a career on defying expectations, and he did it again in Athens.

“They told me it couldn’t be done in ‘96, because I was too immature, and then they said in 2000 I had diabetes and it couldn’t be done,” he said. “And this time I think they said I was too old.”

Hall earned two medals in Athens, including a bronze for swimming the 400 freestyle relay preliminaries. Not quite what he achieved in Atlanta and Sydney, where he won four medals each time.

He was miffed that U.S. men’s coach Eddie Reese didn’t use him in the relay final, so he stayed away from the pool that night and watched on television.

“There are still people who doubt,” he said. “It’s hard to take me seriously sometimes, but consistently I’ve always gotten results.”

Hall wanted to swim the final because he anchored the U.S. team that was upset by Australia in 2000.

“I was bitter,” he said. “I took it very personally when the U.S. lost gold to the Aussies. I’ve been part of that relay for so long — that’s why I took it personally.”

Reese defended his decision, saying Hall didn’t swim a fast enough 100 split in the morning. But Hall’s replacement, Michael Phelps, swam his leg of the final in 48.74 seconds — 0.01 seconds slower than Hall’s time in the preliminaries.

“I’ll find consolation in knowing that I won the 50 free and that I gave it 100 percent,” Hall said.

Reese also bypassed Hall for the 400 medley relay final, set for tonight.

Hall swam one year in college at Texas, where Reese coaches. He first saw Hall swim as a 15-year-old in Phoenix.

“The thing that attracted me to him was it didn’t matter where he was in a race; he always had that killer instinct,” Reese said. “He’s one of the nicest, well-mannered college swimmers I’ve had on my team.”

Still, Hall thrives on doing things in an irreverent, unconventional way.

“He’s a different individual,” Phelps said. “He adds a little flavor to the sport.”

Hall came into his post-race press conference carrying a large potted orchid, a gift from French television.

“I belong to the Coral Gables Orchid Society,” he said with a straight face.

Hall’s sense of humor is unquestioned, although it doesn’t always go over with competitors, teammates and coaches. “It’s OK to have fun,” he said.

He wants to be in the 2008 Beijing Games, almost as much as he seemingly wants to get under people’s skin for another four years.

“Why not?” he said. “Defiance. It’s fun.”

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