Angel Martino took the bronze medal from her neck and handed it to a cancer-stricken friend. Amy Van Dyken, in pain and gasping for air after a gallant sprint to the finish, was helped from the pool deck.
And Gainesville's Allison Wagner collected silver in a dramatic and rewarding night for America's female swimmers, who were supposed to be upstaged by the powerful Chinese.
Even though Le Jingyi beat Martino and Van Dyken, who finished fourth, in the 100-meter freestyle, it was the only medal for the Chinese as just two of their five swimmers in the qualifying heats reached the finals.
The United States won three medals in four swimming events _ two silvers and a bronze _ the biggest haul of the night by any nation.
Silver medals went to Jeremy Linn of Harrisburg, Pa., in the 100 breaststroke and Wagner in the 400 individual medley. The United States was shut out only in the men's 200 freestyle.
It was a night of firsts for three other nations. New Zealand's Danyon Loader in the 200 freestyle and Belgium's Fred Deburghgraeve in the 100 breaststroke won their nation's first Olympic swimming gold medals. The gold in the 400 IM went to Michelle Smith of Ireland, which had never won an Olympic swimming medal.
"It feels good to be the best and be the first," said Deburghgraeve, a brewery worker until the Belgian Olympic committee provided financial support.
Martino, 29, of Americus, Ga., the oldest U.S. Olympic female swimmer in 72 years, won bronze in the 100 freestyle as hometown fans cheered her on. She waved as she received the medal that she kept for only a few minutes before presenting it to Trisha Henry.
"I was shocked. It was one of the nicest things anyone has done for me," said Henry, 20, of Marietta, Ga., who met Martino at a swimming camp run by Martino's father. Henry recently underwent surgery for cancer of the ureter and is a volunteer at the swimming competition.
"I think she's a hero," Martino said.
Deburghgraeve, who set a world record of 1:00.60 in the 100 breaststroke qualifying heats Saturday morning, won the gold at night in 1:00.65.
Le added an Olympic record to her world mark in the 100-meter freestyle by winning in 54.50 seconds after Martino led at the 50-meter mark.
At the 1994 world championships in Rome, the Chinese won gold medals in 12 of 16 women's events. Two weeks later seven of their swimmers, including two world champions, tested positive for steroids and were suspended for two years.