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Brad Bridgewater and Tripp Schwenk had been rivals for almost as long as they had been swimming. The American duo both grew up in Florida, and regularly raced each other in club meets, both specialising in backstroke. Normally it was Schwenk who came out on top. He was two years older, and was bigger, stronger and more experienced. Bridgewater grew up thinking that big races often ended with the same result – Schwenk first, him second.
Bridgewater had to come to terms with the fact that he was permanently second best to Schwenk. What’s more he wasn’t even sure he was the best swimmer in his own family. His sister, Christy, had been awarded a college scholarship off the back of her prowess in the pool, and Bridgewater professed to being very much in awe of her.
However, after he moved to California to attend university, his own performances took a quantum leap. In the US trials for Atlanta 1996, he overcome an important psychological hurdle by defeating Schwenk by 0.24 seconds in the 200m backstroke. But both men knew they faced tough rivals from around the world, not least the Russian Vladimir Selkov and Italy’s Emanuele Merisi.
Surprisingly, Selkov failed to reach the 200m final, but Merisi did, and was looking impressively fast. The two Americans and the Italian all looked set for the podium, but the order in which they would finish was impossible to predict.
Bridgewater led from the start, with Schwenk just behind, and Merisi further back. At the turn, the two Americans led, but then the Italian produced a surge over the back 50m, closing in as his two rivals began to tire. There was only 0.64 seconds between the three men, but it was Bridgewater who touched first. After all those years of losing to Schwenk, he had beaten him when it mattered most.