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Botsford, Hedgepeth lead surprising U.S. to medals

It took a kid to get the U.S. women their first swimming gold medal of the Atlanta Games.

Beth Botsford isn't old enough to drive, but she sure can swim the backstroke.

Botsford, who blew out 15 candles on her birthday cake only two months ago, touched out Whitney Hedgepeth to lead a gold-silver U.S. finish in the 100-meter backstroke Monday night.

And the American women rallied from world-record-holder Janet Evans' surprising absence in the 400-meter freestyle to get a second gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay in front of a wildly cheering crowd at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

"This is the best thing that's ever happened to me," Botsford said. "I knew me and Whitney could do it.

"I couldn't see at first what had happened, then I took off my goggles and got so excited, like, "Wow, I can't believe it.'

"The men (Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnick) went 1-2 last night, and that's what we wanted to do, and we did it."

Botsford, of suburban Baltimore, and Hedgepeth, of Rocky Mount, N.C., posted career-best times of 1 minute, 1.19 seconds and 1:01.47.

"We talked about going 1-2, we're not super-rivals," said Hedgepeth, who swam in the '88 Games but did not qualify in '92.

She came out of retirement about a year ago, quitting her job as a sixth-grade teacher. "My goal was not to throw up or pass out when they called my name. All of this is a joy. It's a pleasure to be here."

Marianne Kriel of South Africa took bronze in 1:02.12.

Angel Martino earned a relay gold to go with her bronze from the 100 freestyle.

Amy Van Dyken, who finished fourth in the open 100, also got a gold in the relay. Catherine Fox and Jenny Thompson swam the other legs.

The Americans won in 3:39.29, with China taking the silver in 3:40.48 and Germany the bronze in 3:41.48. It was only China's second medal of the games.

And it was the second relay title of the Games for the United States, following the victory of the men's 800 freestyle team Sunday.

"We watched Botsford and Hedgepeth compete in the ready room," Thompson said. "That really fired me up, them going one-two on the award stand, the crowd going crazy. It was great."

So was Van Dyken's second leg of the relay. Martino led off with a 55.34, but Le Jingyi, the 100 freestyle champion, overtook her on the second length of the leadoff leg to give China the lead.

Van Dyken ripped through the water in 53.91, the second fastest relay split ever, then handed off to Fox, who swam a 55.93.

"I really felt confident when I dove in because we had the lead," said Thompson, who brought the race home in 54.11. "It was an awesome job by the whole team. I swam my own race and coming off the wall, no one was going to catch me."

No one did.

"I think there'll be more, lots more, because the U.S. has great women," Botsford said. "I read all the newspapers that said the USA is the underdog. The U.S. swim team is not the type to be discouraged by that. It totally motivated all of us. People are starting to realize that the United States is not the underdog here."

The U.S. team's next hopes for swimming gold rest on the shoulders of 14-year-old Amanda Beard, who will compete in her favorite event, the 200 breaststroke, today.

Beard's best time in the four-lap race is 2:26.25 seconds. She has Anita Nall's American record of 2:25.35 firmly in her sights and has duly noted that the world record, set two years ago by Rebecca Brown of Australia, is a 2:24.76.

All eyes will be on Beard in the 200 because of how strongly she finished in the 100 Sunday. She caught Australia's Samantha Riley and five other swimmers over the final 50 meters and gave gold medalist Penny Heyns of South Africa a terrible fright.

In the end, she merely ran out of meters. Today, Beard gets 100 more.