TWO SWIMMERS CONQUER GAMES IN OWN WAYS

SYDNEY, Australia — This is the story of two men at opposite ends of the pool. One flies through the water, the other sloshes. One takes on the best in the world, the other appears fortunate not to drown.

The first is a Dutch medical student named Pieter van den Hoogenband. The second is an unemployed African named Eric Moussambani. Their ages, 22, are the same. Their swimming levels? That’s another matter. Put it this way: If you lined them up by the pool and fired a starter’s pistol, one would be out and toweled dry before the other had finished a lap.

Yet here is how they are forever joined together.

First, the Dutch star, van den Hoogenband. He is, so far, the golden story of these 2000 Olympics. The fastest man on water.

Before the Games, the media trumpeted two names to watch in the men’s pool: teenage sensation Ian Thorpe of Australia and two-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Popov.

Pieter the Great has now beaten them both.

Dutch Master.

“I am still dreaming,” van den Hoogenband said, after stunning the “experts” by winning the 100-meter freestyle gold medal to go with his 200 gold from Monday night. “I am very happy I did this.”

Happy? You’d be happy, too, if you were the first person since Mark Spitz to win the 100 and 200 in the Olympic pool. You do that in track and field, you’re a Wheaties box for the rest of your life. Even more impressive, consider the legends the man they call Hoogie had to dethrone.

Monday night, he swam next to Thorpe, “the Human Thorpedo,” who is as big in Australia as Elvis was in Tennessee. In the din of a totally partisan crowd, all of it screaming for Thorpe to grab a third gold medal, van den Hoogenband calmly dove into the water, pushed the pace in the four laps of the 200-meter race and stunned the crowd with a world-record victory, touching the wall a full arm’s length ahead of Thorpe.

“He swam really well,” Thorpe later said. “There was no beating him tonight.”

Which suggested there might be some beating him on another night.

Then came Wednesday.

He was in fast company

Lining up in what many considered to be the strongest field in the history of swimming’s 100 meters, van den Hoogenband was calm. He sat in an almost meditative state as the crowd was introduced to Popov, the handsome, erudite Russian who won the gold in this event in 1996 and 1992, and Gary Hall Jr., the American who won the silver in Atlanta, and Michael Klim, the bald Aussie who had been outspoken in his confidence and had set a world record at this distance just a few days earlier.

Van den Hoogenband barely gave them notice. But then he didn’t need to. He had already served it in the semifinals, where he broke Klim’s world record. In the semis? Yes. In retrospect, this might have been Hoogie’s greatest advantage. Imagine the subtle pressure you put on your opponents when you come into the final having broken the world record in the previous race. Geez! Imagine what the guy can do when he goes all out!

Perhaps that notion tightened the muscles of Thorpe and Popov just enough. Van den Hoogenband knows something about tightening up. In the 1996 Games, he finished fourth in the 100 and 200. Fourth. The worst position in the Olympics. Just out of the medals. The only thing good about finishing fourth is the hunger it produces.

Hungry Hoogie did not falter.

He swam the 100 beautifully, forcefully, patiently, as if this were his destiny. He led Popov the entire stretch and touched the wall more than a third of a second ahead.

In swimming sprints, that’s an eternity.

“I am so happy,” he said, “I think I may ‘punish’ myself with a beer tonight.”

Later, on the medal stand, the handsome van den Hoogenband ran a hand through his thick brown hair and flashed a Kennedy-esque smile. The crowd cheered.

“I imagine he’s going to be quite marketable in his home country now,” one Australian broadcaster commented.

“Anybody’s home country,” his partner added.

“You’re right,” the first man said. “The world is at his feet.”

Just finishing was his victory

Now to the second swimmer, Moussambani. The world is not at his feet. The water is barely at his feet. He is new to the Olympics. He is new to the pool. He only learned to swim eight months ago, training in a river near his home in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

By the way, the river has snakes and crocodiles.

Moussambani, who had never splashed in a 50-meter pool before, was competing under the Olympic wild-card rule that allows each country to enter at least one person in each event — even if they don’t meet the qualifying standard. Some people think the rule should be eliminated.

They should get a tape of Moussambani’s swim.

He ended up at the edge of the pool, all by himself, because the two other wild-card entrants — one from Niger and one from Tajikistan — were disqualified for false starts.

So Moussambani jumped in and began swimming, his head above water the whole time. (Hey. If there were snakes in your training pool, you’d swim with your head up, too.)

At first the crowd in the Aquatic Center thought this was a joke. Then it dawned on them what was happening, that a sole man was trying his best to leave a footprint on the Olympic blotter, and that same crowd began to cheer.

Louder and louder the applause grew as Moussambani made his turn at 50 meters, a move he only learned to do a few days ago. He had already been in the pool longer than it took van den Hoogenband to win gold. But “Eric the Eel,” as they now call him, kept swimming, kept thrashing. He flailed away, arms digging at the water.

Finally, in just under two minutes time — more than double van den Hoogenband’s 47.84 world record — he touched the wall.

And got a standing ovation.

“I send hugs and kisses to the crowd,” Moussambani said. “They kept me going.”

He is the eldest of five children. He lives with his parents because he is too poor to attend university. He hopes to keep training and compete in the 2004 Games.

In a gesture of solidarity, the Australian team gave him one of those sleek black swimsuits. It read Speedo.

It should have read “Welcome,”

The Dutch Master. The African Novice. Two men. One pool. Yet this morning, they both own it. The spirit of the Olympics lies in the finish line. Getting there first earns you glory, it’s true.

But sometimes just getting there can be glorious, too.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

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