Amanda Beard came to the Olympics with a teddy bear and will leave with a silver medal. And maybe a gold one.
In her first Olympic final, the 100 breaststroke, Beard nearly caught 21-year-old Penny Heyns of South Africa, who set a world record in the event while qualifying eight hours earlier. Heyns touched just 0.36 seconds ahead of Beard's American-record 1:08.09.
"You never rule her out if there's any water in front of her because that's her strength in the finish," U.S. national team director Dennis Pursley said. "She just ran out of space. That's an encouraging sign for the 200."
Beard should have a better chance against Heyns and 100 breaststroke bronze medalist Samantha Riley of Australia in the 200 breaststroke.
Heyns led the field through the first 50, hitting the wall 1.06 seconds ahead of Beard, who was seventh. But Beard recorded the fastest final 50 in the field (35.38) so that in the end, Heyns touched the wall unsure of whose anthem she'd soon be hearing. Riley finished in 1:09.18.
"Phenomenal," was how U.S. women's coach Richard Quick described Beard's final 40 meters.
"I wanted to break the American record so bad," said the Irvine (Calif.) High sophomore-to-be. "That's what I was coming here to do."
In the first race of the night, Claudia Poll gave Costa Rica its first Olympic swimming gold medal as she won the 200 freestyle, beating world record-holder Franziska van Almsick of Germany, who held on for silver in 1:58.57. Poll won in 1:58.16.
Van Almsick, who collected two silvers and two bronzes when she was 14 at the Barcelona Games, was far from happy to be denied the gold she had set her heart on.
"Records, world championships, European championships, they're all nice but they're not the Olympics," van Almsick said.
"I am annoyed with myself and I can't be happy with this silver. I wanted to do more and get a better time," she said.
Poll, 23, passed van Almsick about 80 meters into the race and never gave up her lead. Her sister, Silvia, won Costa Rica's only other Olympic swimming medal, a silver in the 200 free in 1988.
The United States missed a medal by the length of a fingernail. Germany's Dagmar Hase outstretched Trina Jackson of Jacksonville to gain the bronze in 1:59.56. Jackson was one-hundredth of a second behind.
"I don't even remember the race," Jackson said. "I just remember touching the wall, looking up and seeing I was one one-hundredth behind."
The other American, Cristina Teuscher of New Rochelle, N.Y., finished sixth.
China failed to advance any of its four female entrants to Sunday night's finals. Le Jingyi won the 100-meter freestyle Saturday, but none of China's other women has made it out of the preliminary rounds.
This is a stunning turnaround from the 1994 World Championships, where China's women won 12 of 16 gold medals. A doping scandal followed, which resulted in increasingly vigilant drug testing. This appears to have resulted in slower times at the Olympics, American coaches believe.