Van den Hoogenbrand comes good with superb freestyle double
Pieter van den Hoogenband had been a nearly-man in Atlanta four years earlier. Entered in six events, he reached four finals, but two fourth place finishes were the closest he came to a medal. He headed home wondering what he had to do to step up to the next level.
He trained hard, and kept competing, and eventually the results followed. In 1999, the Dutchman finally made the breakthrough at the European Championships, winning six titles. That put him firmly on the map as a leading protagonist in the pool.
He arrived in Sydney amid heightened expectations. This time he was competing in just five events, the first of which was the 200m freestyle.
The world record was held by Australian prodigy Ian Thorpe, the new darling of the host nation. Thorpe had just won the 400m title and then anchored his nation to relay victory over America. There was a growing feeling that all he had to do was jump in the water, and he would win.
But van den Hoogenband had other ideas and he laid down a huge marker in the semi-final when he broke Thorpe's world record. The Australian, swimming a few minutes later, was just 0.02 seconds slower, setting the stage for a classic showdown in the final.
Thorpe led at the 50m mark, but not by much, and van den Hoogenband steadily set about reeling him in. At the halfway mark the Dutch swimmer was narrowly in front, but as the pair touched at the end of the third length there was nothing to separate them, so the race then came down to a 50m sprint. Both men pulled away seamlessly but, to the shock of the home crowd, it was van den Hoogenband who then conjured a slight, but decisive, advantage. He touched the wall in 1 minute 45.35 seconds, equalling his own world record and winning by 0.48 seconds.
His performance in the 100m freestyle was no less dramatic. There was no Thorpe this time, but the start list was still full of familiar and imposing names: Russia's Aleksandr Popov, the USA’s Gary Hall and the Australian Michael Klim. Once again van den Hoogenband produced an incredible display in the semi-final, breaking the world record. He swam slightly slower in the final, but it was good enough to earn victory ahead of Popov and Hall. The nearly man was now a double Olympic champion, and he went on to add two bronzes to his medal haul. Four years later he would return to the Olympic pool in Athens, winning another gold and two silvers.