Philip Hersh – AAP
Erik de Bruin is a former Dutch discus thrower who was banned for doping before becoming the husband and coach of Michelle Smith de Bruin. She is the Irish swimmer whose three 1996 Olympic gold medals were tainted immediately by statistical suspicion and later by her 1998 suspension for manipulating a doping control.
Inge de Bruijn is a Dutch swimmer whose two world records last weekend mark a progression as stunning as Smith’s had been in the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
The name and nationality thing is just coincidence, but the statistical comparison with Smith is inescapable after de Bruijn, in a meet at Gateshead, England, became the first woman to break 57 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly and 54 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle.
De Bruijn, 26, clocked 56.69 seconds in the butterfly, an astonishing 1.19 seconds lower than the world record set by Jenny Thompson of the US last year; and 53.80 in the freestyle, 00.21 faster than the record set by Le Jingyi of China in 1994.
In two meets spaced barely a week apart – May 20-21 at Monaco through and May 26-28 at Gateshead – de Bruijn lowered her personal best in the 100 butterfly by a combined 1.8 seconds and in the 100 freestyle by 1.19. She has become the favorite in both races at the 2000 Olympics.
In the four seasons from 1992 through 1995, de Bruijn made minimal progress in both events and was slower in 1995 than she had been in 1992.
In 1997, a year after she had quit swimming because of apparent disinterest with training, de Bruijn was ranked 23rd in the world in the 100 butterfly and 42nd in the 100 freestyle. Before then she had never been higher than 12th in either, but de Bruijn moved up to second in the world in both events last year.
Part of de Bruijn’s improvement clearly owes to a change in motivation and atmosphere, as she began training with Paul Bergen in Portland, Ore., in 1997. Bergen had coached Tracy Caulkins, who some call the greatest female swimmer in history.
Like Smith, whose breakthrough came at the same relatively late age, de Bruijn has made such a dramatic improvement that even she recognizes the suspicion about use of performance-enhancing drugs her times have provoked.
“I understand,” de Bruijn told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “What can I say except I work hard? I have to live with the suspicions.”
Richard Quick of Stanford, the US women’s Olympic coach and Thompson’s personal coach, had similar feelings.
“In today’s world there is always that doubt,” Quick said. “We unfortunately think of those things [doping], even if I hate to do it.
“I know Inge and I know her coach, and I am not prepared to say they are not doing it legitimately. I can’t think they would be involved in that.”
Quick offered another explanation for de Bruijn’s times – the Speedo Fastskin bodysuit designed to replicate the way a shark’s skin reduces water resistance.
“Some people say it can make you half a second faster per 50 meters, and that about adds up to what Inge did,” Quick said.
John Waring, an engineer and consultant for Speedo who also coaches the Carleton College swim team, postulates a smaller advantage. His “very rough estimate” of improvement with a bodysuit is 1.3 percent, about one-third of a second per 50 meters at de Bruijn’s pace.
The bodysuits, also made by Adidas, have sparked a controversy that went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international sports tribunal. The CAS ruled May 2 that the international swimming federation (FINA) could approve the suit.
Some still want the suit banned on grounds it violates FINA rules prohibiting devices that aid a swimmer’s speed, endurance or buoyancy.
“[Manufacturers] say it’s not buoyant, but I had the sensation of riding higher in the water,” said Tom Malchow of the University of Michigan, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in the 200-meter butterfly.
That was only one of the pleasant sensations Malchow had after wearing the short-sleeved version of the neck-to-ankle Speedo bodysuit at last weekend’s Key Bank Swim Classic in Ann Arbor.
Sunday, in what was a low-key tuneup meet, Malchow clocked 1:55.68 for the 200 butterfly, missing his US record by just .28 of a second. It still was the third fastest time ever.
“I would have been happy with anything under two minutes,” he said.
Malchow, who never before had raced with clothing on his torso, said the bodysuit made him feel as if he were “sliding through the water, and my legs didn’t feel as fatigued.”
He did not know how much of his speed – almost as impressive in his other events last weekend, the 100 butterfly and 400 free – could be attributed to the suit.
“I just came down from three weeks training at altitude, and that could have been a factor too,” he said. “This isn’t going to turn an average swimmer into an Olympian, but it may give a great swimmer another tenth or two-tenths [of a second].”
The 6-foot-7-inch Malchow said he may benefit from it more because of its size.
“I have a lot more fabric to work with,” he said.
Malchow’s coach, Jon Urbanchek, believes some of the benefit may be psychological, and that advantage may owe in part to the novelty of wearing the suit. That is why Malchow won’t use it much before the US Olympic trials in August.
“I don’t want to abuse it,” he said. “I want it to feel awesome and new.”
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