Double gold in the pool for record-breaker Heyns

Picture by Getty

There were three standout contenders for the 100m breaststroke gold medal at Atlanta 1996, and each of them arrived at the Games in peak form. Australia’s Samantha Riley had won bronze in Barcelona four years earlier and had since pushed on, breaking the world record. But she faced a strong challenge from two recent arrivals on the international scene - South Africa's Penny Heyns and the 14-year-old American Amanda Beard.

Heyns – a student at the University of Nebraska in the USA – underlined her prospects at the South African Olympic trials, breaking Riley’s world record time.

Heyns set another world record en route to the final in Atlanta, where she lined up as favourite. She led from the start, but made a slight mistake at the turn allowing Beard to close the gap, pushing her hard until the very end. By now, Riley was out of contention for gold and was instead battling to hold onto third place. As the front pair touched the wall, Heyns didn’t know who had won – but Beard was in little doubt, instantly congratulating her rival on a first gold medal.

For South Africa, it was a moment of jubilation. This was only the country’s first Olympic gold medal for 44 years. Two days later they had a third, as Heyns and Beard met again in the final of the 200m breaststroke. Never before had a swimmer won both individual breaststroke events at the same Games, but Heyns was in no mood to let history get in her way.

Once more, the South African led from the start, with Beard trailing in her wake. Just as in the 100m, the young American launched her challenge over the closing 50m. She narrowed the gap with every stroke, but couldn’t quite overtake Heyns, who won in a new Olympic record time of 2 minutes 25.41 seconds.