Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22, 2000: Fifty meters of fury ... and a tie?

SYDNEY - The men's 50 meter freestyle is the fastest, most straightforward race in swimming. There's no need to worry about making a good turn at the wall, no need to worry about making sure your stroke is in proper form. Just listen for gun, jump in, and go. Nothing fancy, just get to the other side as fast as you can.

The race, especially at the Olympic level, is often close, with competitors sometimes coming to the finish line in a near straight line. The difference between first place and last can often be less than a second. But nobody expected to see what they saw in the gold medal race in Sydney in 2000.

What people expected to see was Alexander Popov, the Russian Rocket, win his third straight Olympic gold medal in the event and maybe break his own world record he set that June. People might have also expected to see American Gary Hall, Jr., give Popov a run for his money and maybe match his silver medal from the previous Olympics.

Popov didn't live up to his end of the bargain, finishing sixth in the final. But Hall did, posting the best qualifying time and leading the charge toward the wall in the final. When the waves died down and the racers took a glance up at the scoreboard, everybody saw Hall's name in the top position ... joined by that of teammate Anthony Ervin, who posted an identical time of 21.98 seconds. They had improbably tied for the gold medal and would stand together at the top of the podium.

The gold medal result wasn't a surprise for Hall. It was one of 10 Olympic medals he would win in his career, including 5 golds, but it was his first individual gold medal. Ervin's place at the top, however, was a little more surprising. He barely made the Olympic team, qualifying in only the 50 and the 100 freestyle relay. He medaled in both events in Sydney, then never won another Olympic medal.

Either way, a dead heat between two countrymen was a shocking result, and a happy one for Americans who didn't want to pick sides. And it forever linked Hall and Ervin together in swimming history.

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