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Olympics Dispatch II: August 19, 2004

Medscape.com Posted 08/19/2004

Anne Peters Harmel, MD

The 50-meter freestyle sprint is the swimming equivalent of the 100-yard dash: once across the pool and you're done. Swimmers from all over the world -- Maldives, Trinidad, Croatia, Korea, Malawi -- turn out to try their luck in 11 preliminary heats that start with the slowest qualifying times. It's the most international event I've seen yet. The winner of each heat of 8 swimmers waved and smiled as though he'd won the gold, although most didn't qualify for the semifinals. The joy was about swimming in the Olympics, proudly, for the country each represents. This was the true Olympic spirit, separate from politics and terror threats. The real thing.

Gary's heat was number 11, the last. Heats go by quickly; there are no introductions, just "swimmers take your mark," get set, go... one splash and the swimmers are at the other side in 22 seconds, give or take a few hundredths. Gary's hopes as a swimmer, and to some degree his future, hang on getting it right. By heat 9 I feel the adrenaline, the jitteriness, like I'm about to give the biggest lecture of my life. Then Gary appears, strong, determined, no joking around. He needs to come back from the negativity of being passed over for the relay team (and, given the results of that relay, it was a particularly bad decision on the coach's part).

The buzzer sounds, the announcer speaks, and Gary leaps into the water like a coiled spring coming undone. I am beside myself, screaming "Go Gary" from the second I see him on the pool deck. It feels good to scream. I try to give him energy, and I pray to the Gods of diabetes to give all the people with abnormal glucose metabolism who look up to this man another victory. He streaks to the other side, fast-twitch muscle propelling him seamlessly through the water. He makes no errors, and he wins. He wins the prelims. He beats the South Africans and the Dutch and the Russians and everyone else who was supposed to beat him, and he shows the world he is still Gary Hall, one of the greatest sprinters of all time. Undaunted by diabetes and age and being out of favor with the swimming coaches, he still can swim with the best of them.

Winning the prelims is by no means winning a medal. He still has the semifinals and the finals to go. But regardless of how he does in those events, he has shown that he is still in the game. He had valid cause for showing up at these Olympics, and, who knows, he might win an individual medal after all.

Olympics Dispatch III: Victorious
Posted 08/23/2004


Medscape Diabetes & Endocrinology 6(2), 2004. 2004 Medscape