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New Zealand's track record in the swimming events at the Olympic Games was not hugely impressive going into Atlanta 1996. They had a couple of bronze medals, and then a silver in the 200m butterfly won in Barcelona four years earlier by a 17-year-old by the name of Danyon Loader. That had been a remarkable performance, with the teenager beating his personal best by an extraordinary 3.3 seconds in the final.
Four years on, and Loader had grown in confidence and experience. He was no longer an unknown but a respected contender for medals. He was entered in no fewer than seven events, but only made the 200m and 400m freestyle finals.
In the 200m he found himself trailing Swedish veteran Anders Holmertz, who for the third Games running led this event at the halfway stage. And for the third Games running the Swede failed to win gold. Instead, Loader took the lead at the end of the third length and turned ahead of the field before touching the wall with over half a second to spare to claim New Zealand’s first swimming gold medal.
Two days later, Loader was back for the final of the 400m. In the absence of reigning world champion, Kieren Perkins of Australia, who had failed to qualify for the Australian team, the competition was wide open.
Once more, it was Holmertz who took the lead, and this time he managed to stay there until well after the halfway point. With 100m remaining, though, Loader struck the front and was never headed, coming home more than a second ahead of Great Britain’s Paul Palmer.
Loader did not compete at the 2000 Games, but his two gold medals in Atlanta secured him a place in New Zealand’s sporting history, and he was voted his country’s greatest athlete of the 1990s.