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SWIMMING: WOMEN

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

United States coach Richard Quick says the team is woefully behind the rest of the world and should be favored to win only one gold. Of course, Quick made a similar assessment in 1996 and the United States won four individual golds and two relays.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Quick's dire prediction has some basis. The only American who goes into Australia as the No. 1-ranked swimmer in her event is Valrico's Brooke Bennett in the 800-meter freestyle.

But expectations remain high for a number of U.S. swimmers in Sydney. Bennett is expected to repeat in the 800 and she or Diana Munz could win the 400 free. Megan Quann is a contender in the 100-meter breaststroke.

The main focus, however, will be on the trio of veterans. Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson and Amy Van Dyken have 11 Olympic gold medals among them. Torres has qualified in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly, with Thompson joining her in the 100 free and 100 fly and Van Dyken in the 50 free.

NAMES TO REMEMBER

Megan Quann even goes to sleep in a hurry.

The 16-year-old from Puyallup, Wash., is swimming's latest prodigy. A workaholic who has cut back on high school classes to increase her training for swimming. She has a list of world rankings in the 100-meter breaststroke taped to her closet door and, each time she moves up, she crosses off a name.

Quann also goes to bed at night with a stopwatch in her hand. The idea, she said, is to know in her heart what a time of 1:06.52 feels like. That is the world record time held by Penny Heyns of South Africa. When the seconds finally click off, Quann goes to sleep.

On the other end of the spectrum is B.J. Bedford. Nearing her 28th birthday, Bedford was swimming in her first trials when Quann was 4. Yet she joins Quann as a newcomer to the Olympic team this year.

Bedford's 12-year wait finally ended when she qualified in the 100 backstroke. After failing to qualify in Atlanta four years ago, Bedford quit swimming for a year and worked as a bartender in Texas. Bedford said she is swimming better than ever because she has learned to put swimming in its proper place. She is engaged and has bought a house for her and her two basset hounds.

Bedford's chances in Sydney are not strong, but her kinetic energy and personality could make her a big attraction.

THE HEAT IS ON

Jenny Thompson has five gold medals around her neck and one huge monkey on her back. Thompson could leave Australia as the most decorated female athlete in U.S. history, but it still may not be enough for her.

Thompson has won five Olympic gold medals, but they have all come in relay events. She failed to qualify for an individual event in 1996 and won a silver in the 100-meter freestyle in 1992.

An incoming medical student at Columbia University, Thompson has qualified for both the 100 free and the 100 butterfly in Sydney. She also likely will swim on two relay teams. The chance for four more gold medals is very real. The chance for disappointment also looms large.

Thompson has the second-fastest time in history in the 100 fly. She has the third-fastest time in the 100 free. It just so happens that the world record holder in both events, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, will be swimming alongside Thompson in Australia.

DID YOU KNOW?

With an average age of 21.58, this is the oldest U.S. team ever. It is also the first time the women's team is older than the men's (20.66).

At 33, Dara Torres is the model for the older set. And we do mean that literally. Torres gave up a modeling and television career to return to swimming last summer after a seven-year retirement. The first woman swimmer to compete in four Olympic Games, Torres has the best times of her career.

Amy Van Dyken, 27, also is making a comeback. Van Dyken's career was supposedly over after her second shoulder operation, but she qualified for the Olympics after just seven months of rehabilitation.

THE WORLD VIEW

Inge de Bruijn will not only have to deal with the world's best swimmers, but also the world's best skeptics.

The swimmer from the Netherlands has been under scrutiny since a two-week period in May when she tied or broke world records in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle and the 50 and 100 butterfly. Then she broke two of the records again. Considering she had once been dismissed as a lightweight because she did not train hard enough, de Bruijn's sudden success led to the inevitable rumors of performance-enhancing stimulants.

Therese Alshammar has been competing for the University of Nebraska, but she could be Sweden's first gold-medal winner in women's swimming. She won the 50 and 100 freestyle in the 2000 European Championships.

Susie O'Neill, who took .15 seconds off Mary T. Meagher's 19-year-old record in the 200 butterfly, could win six medals. The Australian has qualified in the 200 free, 100 and 200 fly and is eligible on three relays.

ATLANTA RECAP

It was the year of the nerds. Or so Amy Van Dyken proclaimed it.

Van Dyken, who carries horrible memories of being teased in high school for being tall, wearing glasses and not fitting in with the popular crowd, had the greatest Olympic haul of any woman in U.S. history.

Van Dyken won gold in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 400-meter medley relay and 400-meter freestyle relay, becoming the first U.S. woman to win four golds in the same Games, summer or winter.

She said her performance should be a lesson to children who do not feel like they fit in.

The Games also featured the official passing of the torch from Janet Evans to Valrico's Brooke Bennett. Evans, the most dominant distance swimmer in history, finished a distant sixth in the 800 free while the 16-year-old Bennett took gold.

Beth Botsford won the 100 backstroke and the U.S. swept the relay events, setting an Olympic record in the 400 free relay.

_ Compiled by John Romano.

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