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AMY VAN DYKEN // 4 GOLDS

You didn't get asked to the prom, did you? You spent a lot of time in rightfield. The other kids used to laugh at you. You weren't particularly athletic, particularly smart, particularly popular.

Oh, do we have an Olympian for you.

"This is a victory," says Amy Van Dyken, flashing a smile that gets more golden by the day, "for all the nerds out there."

This is a victory for the gawky girl who used to wander the halls of Cherry Creek High School in Denver, listening to the snide little comments that high school students make. This is a victory for the teammates who talked about her behind her back. This is one for the people who made Van Dyken feel too tall, too awkward, too slow.

This is a victory, like all the rest of her victories, for the square peg in all of us.

She has four gold medals, and now she is the most decorated U.S. woman in any single Olympiad. She has won four gold medals, two individual and two relays. Babe Didriksen never did that. Neither did Bonnie Blair. Or Mary Lou Retton or Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Tracy Caulkins or Florence Griffith-Joyner. Or anyone else, summer or winter.

And you know what? Van Dyken darned near slipped by the world.

One night belonged to Tom Dolan. The next belonged to the drug allegations against Michelle Smith. The next was Kerri Strug. Always, there seemed to be a bigger story than Van Dyken, who seems quite comfortable out of the limelight.

Take Friday night. By the time Van Dyken reached the interview room, the woman she had just beaten in the 50-meter freestyle, China's Le Jingyi, was answering a question. So Van Dyken froze behind the curtain, unsure of whether she should take the stairs. Finally, she did so with her shoulders slumped, with her head ducked, slinking past Le as if no one would notice.

At the time, you wouldn't realize that, as a competitor, Van Dyken is one of those athletes who will rip an opponent's heart out and show it to her.

In the ready room Friday night, Van Dyken started to stare at Le. Harder. And harder. Le would not look at her. Only one time did she return the gaze. Van Dyken resisted the urge, she said, to stick her tongue out at her.

The staring continued at poolside. This is where sprint races are won, Van Dyken would say later. So she turned up the death stare. And you know what? By the time Le stared back, she was looking up at Van Dyken on the medal stand.

"I'm mean," Van Dyken said, grinning. "I'm sorry."

Actually, she isn't. Sorry, that is. She is an athlete who blossomed late, and she has never forgotten the indignities her teammates made her suffer.

For instance, there were her high school swimming teammates. Once, Van Dyken remembers, she was sitting poolside, using a towel over her head to keep out the sun. The three girls who swam with her on the medley relay team sat in front of her, not knowing she could hear. "We should win this relay," one said, "But with Van Dyken, we'll probably finish second."

That hurt. It hurt, too, when she found out they had gone to the high school coach and refused to race with her. Why? Because she was terrible. At the time, Van Dyken simply wasn't very good. Because she was 6 feet tall and gangly, and she didn't quite fit in.

It is seldom in life that the underdog gets payback, but for Van Dyken, it happened. A few weeks ago, she was in a mall and recognized her former teammates. So she did what anyone would do. She approached them.

"Hey, guys," she said. "I'm going to the Olympics and swimming in five events. What are you guys up to?"

She laughs now. She is going on television to talk to Jay Leno and Katie Couric and maybe Oprah Winfrey again. And CNN and ESPN and who knows what else. And what are you guys up to?

"I want to thank all the people who gave me a hard time in high school, because I don't think I would have my drive if it weren't for them," she said. "I won't take it to the mall to show them, but they'll know I have it.

"This is for everyone who is out there struggling, whose peers are telling them they aren't good enough. Keep plugging away at it. If you love it, keep at it."

Pretty good advice. Then again, Van Dyken followed it herself. Two years ago, she quit swimming. She had had mono, and her times had fallen off, and she was tired of being wet all the time. But after a while, she began to realize what she had given up, and how much she liked it. "And how greasy my hair got when I wasn't in the pool twice a day," she said.

These would be a different Olympics if she had quit. Van Dyken struggled in her debut, cramping up in the 100 and watching Le win the race. Since then, everything she has touched has been gold. She set an American record with a 24.87 in the 50. She swam the second-fastest relay split in history (53.91) as the second leg in the 400 freestyle. She anchored the 400-meter medley relay with the sixth-fastest split in history (54.17). And the biggest shock of all _ the one that made her father drop his camera and shatter it _ was when she won the 100-meter butterfly in an upset.

Not bad for a woman at the pool. "Besides," she said, "you get to see all these guys in Speedos."

Van Dyken laughs again. It sounded sweet and golden.

What it sounded like was a last laugh for the nerd inside her. Inside us, too.

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