THE TARNISHED GOLDEN GIRL
IRISH SWIMMER MICHELLE SMITH de Bruin's fairy-tale rise to stardom came crashing down after she was banned for tampering with a drug test.
RATHCOOLE, Ireland - A story is told here of a woman who, if such a procedure were possible, would test positive only for grit, determination and massive amounts of pride.
The tale, its impurities filtered out and its words chlorinated, hangs on the wall at the local pub in the village where Michelle Smith de Bruin grew from little girl to swimming star to international pariah.
The framed poem is called "The Golden Girl of Ireland." It talks of the three gold medals de Bruin won in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It talks of her family and her local roots. It talks of "innuendo," but doesn't mention a word about scandal. What rhymes with "tainted urine sample," anyway?
This is ground zero for support of de Bruin, the former Michelle Smith, who lives quietly with her husband and baby about an hour's drive from her childhood home. An Poitin Stil (Gaelic for "the Poteen Still") has a thatched roof and the sort of darkened ambience found in pubs all over Ireland.
Later this year construction will begin on the Michelle de Bruin room, complete with a retractable roof and a miniature swimming pool. De Bruin has offered to lend her medals for display, but pub owner Tommy Young is concerned they might be stolen. He'll have copies made instead for his County Dublin establishment.
All of this, it is hoped, will give the story more substance, more depth, more flesh.
"She's a really nice girl," Young said. "Her family is nice. Nobody anticipated the results were going to be as good as they were."
Nobody here did. Nobody anywhere did. Nobody except, perhaps, de Bruin and her husband, Erik.
After a long cat-and-mouse game, with drug testers repeatedly unable to locate the swimmer, FINA, the sport's international governing body, finally pinned down de Bruin and banned her from competition for tampering with her urine sample. FINA chose not to pursue sanctions against de Bruin after three successive tests had shown traces of the banned substance androstenedione, a testosterone precursor, in her urine.
The poem stands vigil inside the pub waiting to fight off the facts of the matter, how a 26-year-old swimmer regarded as a mediocre international performer turned into a dominant star almost overnight, how she was banned for four years for allegedly spiking a drug test with something that smelled suspiciously like whiskey.
There is no mention of how one woman's quest for gold turned family member against family member, friend against friend, newspaper writer against newspaper writer.
But then, what kind of fairy tale would that be?
She wants privacy
De Bruin lives comfortably with her husband and 10-month-old daughter in Kells, County Kilkenny, in a $359,000 home she bought with cash. The home has a gate, and the de Bruins keep to themselves. The Olympics were not nearly as good to them as they had hoped, despite appearances.
Her book, rushed into print in October 1996, did not sell well in Ireland. Her deal with the government to promote tourism and the Irish language fell apart once she was banned from competition. She lost another deal with an air-freight company after the Olympics.
"She should have been our Michael Jordan," former Irish swimmer Gary O'Toole said.
De Bruin did not return telephone calls seeking an interview for this story.
That leaves the facts, and the facts aren't too kind to the swimmer. For a brief while, Ireland embraced the fiction of a swimmer well past her prime who suddenly discovered talent that hadn't been there before. O'Toole knew something wasn't right but chose to keep his skepticism to himself, even as he described de Bruin's successes to a huge national audience as a TV commentator during the 1996 Olympics.
O'Toole suspected long before many others that Smith was taking illegal substances to boost her performance. Now a physician who lives near Dublin, O'Toole retired from competitive swimming in February 1994 after winning a silver medal in the 1989 European championships as a breaststroker.
Not long after retiring, he saw a different woman than he had known, a woman with huge arms and shoulders.
"It was a complete metamorphosis," O'Toole said. "The Michelle I remembered had been round and feminine and carried not a lot of excessive weight, but some.
"I looked at her and said, `My God, what have you been taking?' "Something was going on. I said to her, `Well, whatever you're doing, be careful.' She didn't say anything to me."
De Bruin's eventual explanation was that her boyfriend, Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin, had come up with a special training program that unlocked her hidden abilities. In 1993, track's international governing body gave Erik de Bruin a four-year ban for using performance-enhancing substances. He would become one of the smoking guns in the Michelle de Bruin case.
Michelle de Bruin moved to Holland with Erik in 1994 (they married in 1996) and began isolating herself from other swimmers. Over the next two years she set 43 Irish swimming records. But it was more than the records that raised eyebrows. After spending most of her career swimming the backstroke and the individual medley, she took on the butterfly and the 400-meter freestyle, disciplines that require power.
In 1994, in her first 200-meter butterfly as an international competitor in a 50-meter pool, de Bruin finished fifth in the world championships. Eyebrows were now raised somewhere in the vicinity of hairlines.
But that was nothing compared with the results de Bruin began churning out in the water in Atlanta. She won a gold medal on the first day of competition. A few days later, another. And another. She was an alchemist, turning nothing into gold.
Suddenly, Ireland had a swimming champion.
Ireland is a land of patriotic people, and suddenly it had a star on its hands. It didn't matter that there wasn't a 50-meter pool in the country. What mattered was that Ireland had a golden girl.
O'Toole found himself sitting in the TV analyst's chair knowing what drove de Bruin from Point A to Point B but unable - and unwilling - to say it.
"The directive came down that nobody was to discuss drugs and Michelle Smith on national television," he said. "In a way for me at the time, it was great. I knew everything about drugs. Everything. I worked with them all through medical school.
"It suited me not to talk about it because if you've got 1.5 million TV sets tuned in to watch someone achieve something, you don't want to be the one to burst the bubble."
But Smith was putting up crazy numbers. Before Atlanta, her best time in the 400-meter intermediate medley had been 4 minutes 58.94 seconds. That came in 1992, when she briefly considered retirement. At the 1996 Olympics, she won in 4:39.18.
When it was over, she had won three gold medals and a bronze. But when she returned home for the traditional open-top bus ride through Dublin, it rained so hard that only a few thousand people braved the elements to get a look at the golden girl of Ireland. In comparison, an estimated 750,000 had greeted the Irish soccer team after it made the World Cup finals in 1990.
You can't convince Cathal Dervan that Michelle de Bruin was dirty, despite smudges all over the scandal that look suspiciously like her and her husband's fingerprints.
"I have no doubt that Michelle would have bent the rules as much as they could be bent," he said. "I also have no doubt that she didn't break them. "
Dervan wrote Smith's biography, "Gold: A Triple Champion's Story," and is her most vocal supporter. He believes there has been a conspiracy by the Irish media to contaminate de Bruin's reputation.
"She has never failed a drug test in her life," he said. "This whole scenario is not about failing a drug test. It's about somebody tampering with a drug sample."
The events after the 1996 Olympics had little to do with swimming and everything to do with chasing. In January 1997, FINA officials complained about de Bruin's unavailability for a random drug test. A year later, when two local drug testers showed up at the de Bruin home in Kells, they initially couldn't get past the locked gates.
When they were finally allowed inside, they lost sight of de Bruin for four to six minutes. When de Bruin handed over her urine sample, it smelled of whiskey, the testers said. When the sample got to the laboratory, officials said it had been contaminated by some sort of alcohol.
A forensics laboratory later would find no signs of tampering on the container.
De Bruin was banned for four years in August 1998. When she chose to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in May 1999, it allowed the world a long look at the case against de Bruin. It was revealed that she already had tested positive for androstenedione, though FINA had chosen to pursue the tampering charge instead. In June, the court left the ban in place. She would, however, be able to keep her Olympic medals.
Some believe de Bruin was set up.
"The chain of events from when she gave the sample in Kilkenny to when she ended up in Switzerland to clear her name is totally unclear," Dervan said. "You see all these cases at the moment where people get let off because the tests didn't stand up to proper scrutiny. Yet nobody says that Michelle Smith got badly treated."
The case ended up pitting friend against friend and competitor against competitor. Irish Times columnist Tom Humphries resigned after his paper killed two of his stories about de Bruin. One came during the Olympics and mentioned that other swimmers, including American Janet Evans, were questioning her sudden ascendancy in swimming. The other came after he went to Holland and heard experts talk about performance-enhancing drugs and the unlikelihood of a 26-year-old female swimmer blooming late. He quit for three weeks before going back to work.
Writers who back de Bruin no longer speak with Humphries and others who have been critical of the swimmer. Friendships have been ruined.
O'Toole, who had kept his opinions private, went on a national TV talk show after the news broke that de Bruin had been accused of contaminating her urine sample. Asked whether he believed de Bruin had taken performance-enhancing drugs, he said he did. It was a stunning admission, one that rocked the country.
"I had always been held up as a paragon of light in many parts because people would say, `He was on at 2 in the morning during the Olympics extolling her virtues. He said she was a wonderful swimmer,' " O'Toole said. "I didn't say she was fantastic or superb, but that the achievement was. For me to come out and say this on the TV was . . . oh, Jesus."
No one knows exactly how Michelle de Bruin became such a great swimmer or what substances she used to become one.
Perhaps someday the full story will be told, and many believe Erik de Bruin will be the one to tell it.
"It's always been my belief that she was his revenge on the system," said Paul Howard, a writer for the Sunday Tribune in Dublin. "He decided when he was banned that because he couldn't compete himself he was going to find an average swimmer and turn her into a worldbeater. It's exactly what he did."
De Bruin is happy, Dervan said.
"She has fulfillment now," he said. "You can imagine what her daughter is going to have to go through when she goes to school. She is going to have a hard time with people.
"But Michelle says that when her daughter gets old enough, she can sit down with her and go through the whole thing, and that her daughter can be proud of the fact that her mother won four medals in the Olympics in 1996."
It should be quite a story.
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