When Inky Made Her Mark: The Anniversary of Inge de Bruijn And Her Sydney Star Turn

Inge de Bruijn

When Inky Made Her Mark: The Anniversary of Inge de Bruijn And Her Sydney Star Turn

From the August Issue of Swimming World

The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney are widely remembered for the home-nation success of Australia, which was spearheaded by teenage sensation Ian Thorpe. But the Games Down Under also served as a redemptive locale for the Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn, who used the stage to define herself as one of the sport’s legends.

Usually, an invitation to the Olympic Games would generate greater passion for the sport and a more-intense focus on the work that awaits. But not all athletes are wired the same, and as the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta approached, something was missing for Inge de Bruijn. Her training sessions lacked dedication. Sometimes, she would arrive late to practice. On occasion, she didn’t show up at all.

In the early 1990s, de Bruijn was a promising talent for the Netherlands. At the 1991 European Championships, de Bruijn earned a silver medal (100 butterfly) and bronze medal (50 freestyle) in Athens, efforts that complemented a relay bronze medal from the World Championships. The next year, she was eighth in the 50 freestyle and ninth in the 100 butterfly at the Olympics in Barcelona.

Although de Bruijn did not reach the podium in her Olympic debut, she did enough to suggest that big days were ahead in the sprint and fly. And with another European medal in the 50 free in 1993, the Dutchwoman seemed on pace. But on the road to the Centennial Olympics, de Bruijn lost the fire that is necessary to compete at the highest level.
It might have been the best thing for her career.

A BENEFICIAL BREAK

De Bruijn managed to qualify for the Atlanta Games, but her waning desire led coach Jacco Verhaeren to dismiss her from the National Team roster. It wasn’t an easy decision for Verhaeren to make, as de Bruijn was also his girlfriend. But it was the right call, and one that – eventually – provided a major boost to de Bruijn’s career.

“My break in 1996 was good for me,” de Bruijn said. “I didn’t swim for a year. There was no point going to the Olympics because I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself. I wasn’t having fun. After that, I put in the hard work, and I used my talent totally. I just got faster and faster.”

In 1997, de Bruijn shifted her training base to the United States, where she started to work with Paul Bergen. In Bergen, de Bruijn found a mentor who had elite credentials, specifically as the former coach to Tracy Caulkins, and was able to bring out the best in the Dutch lady. In short time, the fire that once burned returned.

By the 1998 World Championships, de Bruijn was a finalist in the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly, and she earned three medals at the 1999 European Championships – gold in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, and silver in the 100 freestyle. A year shy of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, de Bruijn had established herself as a major force.

“What has really made a big difference to my fitness is the dryland training (Bergen) has introduced into my program,” de Bruijn said. “I do a lot of running, biking, rope climbing, jump ropes, medicine balls and stretching. Those kinds of things have really made me feel in good shape.”

TOP OF THE WORLD

The 2000 campaign can only be described as sensational for de Bruijn, whose march to Sydney included world records in all three of her prime events. Overall, de Bruijn broke six global standards en route to her second Olympiad, efforts that enabled her to compete with booming confidence. More were produced in Sydney.

Inge De Bruin at Sydney 2000

During her week in Australia, de Bruijn put together one of the most impressive performances by a female in Olympic history. She swept all three of her individual events and set a world record in each discipline. Her world records in the freestyle events arrived in the semifinals, with her global mark in the 100 butterfly punctuating her gold-medal effort. She added a silver medal as a member of the Netherlands’ 400 freestyle relay.

De Bruijn’s triple-gold performance was staggering on the whole, but a closer look at each of her triumphs revealed an even more exceptional effort. None of the Dutchwoman’s races were close, as she prevailed by .19 in the 50 free and .50 in the 100 free. In the 100 butterfly, de Bruijn blasted the competition, her world-record time of 56.61 more than a second clear of silver medalist Martina Moravcova of Slovenia.

In becoming one of the stars of Sydney, De Bruijn had to defeat some of the top names in the sport. In the sprint-freestyle events, Sweden’s Therese Alshammar was the silver medalist in both distances, with American Dara Torres winning bronze in the 50 freestyle and sharing bronze with countrywoman Jenny Thompson in the 100 freestyle.

ACCUSATIONS ABOUND

As much as the week was a fairytale, it also included a dark chapter, as de Bruijn’s rise from good to great was suggested to be the result of performance-enhancing drug use. Although he did not identify de Bruijn by name, American coach Richard Quick clearly questioned whether the Dutch star was clean.

Swimming World August 2021 - Netherlands' Inge de Bruijn - One of the Greatest Sprinters of All TimeThe finger-pointing and second-guessing have become the norm in the sport, especially when an athlete emerges from the shadows, or puts together a career surge. In making his assertions, Quick spoke with assurance.

“I absolutely do not think that this is a drug-free Olympic Games,” Quick said. “The (International Olympic Committee) should make it the No. 1 priority to make sure the competition is fair. I think it’s very sad. It’s a sad state of affairs when great, great performances in this sport have clouds over them.”

Quick’s accusations did not sit well with the Dutch contingent, especially Verhaeren, who again was coaching de Bruijn in a split-time setup with Bergen. Verhaeren declared the suspicions to be fueled by jealousy, and vehemently denied any of his athletes took part in illicit practices.

In addition to mentoring de Bruijn, Verhaeren guided Pieter van den Hoogenband to a trio of medals in freestyle events. Van den Hoogenband captured double gold in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, and added a bronze medal in the 50 freestyle. His victory in the 200 free was one of the great performances of the competition, as the Dutchman upended Thorpe.

In the media, several comparisons were made between de Bruijn and Ireland’s Michelle Smith, who won three gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. In addition to their gold-medal count, both women enjoyed significant improvement at later points in their careers.

To her credit, De Bruijn took the accusations in stride. Throughout the year, as she began toppling world records, she heard whispers concerning her times. But instead of becoming enraged by the allegations, de Bruijn simply defended her training.

“I can understand the questions,” she said. “My progress is significant, but I’m not the only one. People have to accept it. People should know that I train like an animal. I had a really rough time with the accusations. I’m a very emotional person and it got to me, but I’ve decided not to read any more newspapers because I know all I was doing was working very hard. If you set world records, they want to chop your head off. They want to take it away from you. Right now, I’m above all those accusations.”

ADDITIONAL ACCOLADES

Sydney hardly marked the end of de Bruijn’s excellence. At the 2001 World Championships, she tripled again, this time winning the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle, along with the 50 butterfly. Two years later, she was dominant again at the World Champs, where she repeated in the 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly. Just as the 1999 European Championships set the stage for the 2000 Olympics, the 2003 World Champs positioned de Bruijn for her Olympic hurrah at the 2004 Games in Athens.

In Athens, de Bruijn collected a silver medal in the 100 freestyle and added bronze medals in the 100 butterfly and as a member of the Dutch 400 freestyle relay. But her best performance was saved for last, as she capped the last day of the meet with defense of her title in the 50 freestyle. Once again, de Bruijn was untouchable in the one-lap sprint, as her winning time of 24.58 was comfortably quicker than the 24.89 of silver medalist Malia Metella of France.

Almost immediately, de Bruijn let out a sigh of relief. Upon finding a rekindled desire for the water and the necessary training to reach the pinnacle of her sport, de Bruijn was rewarded with results to her liking. Not surprising, her farewell was deeply satisfying.

“This is an amazing feeling,” she said of her repeat. “It is my eighth (Olympic) medal and on the last day of the program, what a climax. I can’t find words to express it. The smile on my face will stay there for a couple more weeks. There has been so much pressure on me given the other results. Finally, I got the gold. I’m just going to enjoy the medal ceremony.”

AT PEACE

Initially, de Bruijn thought there was a chance she would compete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but as a 31-year-old, she was already the oldest individual Olympic swimming champion, a record that has since been surpassed. Ultimately, she didn’t see herself racing in the Olympics at 35 and decided to hang up her cap and goggles.

In 2009, de Bruijn was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, her election a slam-dunk choice. Undoubtedly, she ranks as one of the greatest sprinters of all-time.

“My career is finished, and I reached the top,” de Bruijn said in assessing her exploits. “I am 33 years old now and a granny in swimming, while my body isn’t recovering so well like it did in the past. I will miss the excitement of hearing the Dutch national anthem on the podium but achieving that is not something that comes easy. I’ve worked hard for my achievements.”

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