In the years leading up to Atlanta 1996, US swimmer Amy Van Dyken had been steadily improving, making light of the fact that she suffered from asthma to transform herself into a regular contender for international prizes. In early 1995, she broke the world record in the 50m butterfly and she arrived at the Atlanta Games ready to compete in five events – three individual and two relays.
Her Games got off to a disappointing start, as she finished fourth in the 100m freestyle, collapsed in agony at the end due to cramps. But two nights later the pain was replaced by joy as she won a gold medal as part of the US 4x100m freestyle team. She was now in full swing.
The following evening she returned to the pool for the final of the 100m butterfly, an event in which the Chinese swimmer Liu Limin was the favourite. Van Dyken matched Liu all the way, and when the two swimmers touched at the end, nobody watching was sure who had won. It was only when the electronic scoreboard flashed up the times that it became clear that Van Dyken had been quicker by a margin of 0.01 seconds.Getty
With two gold medals to her name, Van Dyken now had a chance at making history. No American woman had ever won four gold medals at a single Games and she was a real contender in her two remaining events. First was the women’s 4x100m medley relay, and the Americans duly lived up to their formidable reputation by winning by a margin of more than two seconds over Australia. Van Dyken was now up to three golds, with one event, the 50m freestyle, left.
This time she was up against another Chinese swimmer, the world champion Le Jingyi. The two had already met in the 100m, when Le had taken gold and Van Dyken finished off the podium. Now, though, the momentum was with the American. The stage was set for a dramatic, turbo-charged clash.
Le took the lead straight out of the blocks, and held it for almost the whole race. But then over the closing strokes, Van Dyken surged past to touch the wall 0.03 seconds ahead of her rival. The crowd erupted and history had been made. The American had a haul of four golds from one Games.
Van Dyken won two more relay golds in Sydney four years later, but then she retired to focus on a career in coaching and the media. In 2014, she was badly injured in a car crash, which left her paralysed from the waist down. She subsequently went on to become a prominent campaigner for greater support for people with spinal cord injuries.