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Thursday, August 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Ann Tatko
ATHENS Natalie Coughlin helped erase a part of swimming's tainted history last night with a blazing relay start that eventually toppled the longest-standing world record.
Relegated to a footnote was the fact that Coughlin and the U.S. women's 800-meter freestyle relay team won the Olympic gold medal.
Perhaps more significant, the Americans obliterated the last remaining world record held by an East German swimming team. And they did it exactly 17 years to the day that the previous record was set.
In 1994, documents from the East German sport science program revealed how doctors systematically administered steroids to the country's athletes during the 1970s and '80s. Despite this disclosure, the International Olympic Committee and the international swimming federation allowed the East German results and records to stand.
"It burned people a lot," U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert said. "We're very proud to have that record back."
A multinational crowd rose to its feet as Kaitlin Sandeno swam the final 50 meters. Her teammates leaned over the starting block, cheering her to the finish. Coughlin stood on one side of the block, her eyes darting from the water to the clock.
Sandeno touched the wall at 7 minutes, 53.42 seconds.
Her relay teammates knew immediately that the former world record of 7:55.47 had fallen. Coughlin leaned down and shouted to Sandeno, "You did it," as Dana Vollmer and Carly Piper hugged.
"It was the longest-standing record. That in itself is a feat, regardless of whether it's tainted or not," Sandeno said. "We showed how strong we are and how much depth we had."
In other races, Australia's Jodie Henry set a world record in the 100 freestyle semifinal in 53.52, and American Brendan Hansen won his second bronze medal, this time in the 200 breaststroke.
Japan's Kosuke Kitajima completed a sweep of the breaststrokes, while Aaron Peirsol set an Olympic record in the semifinals of the 200-meter backstroke.
As for Michael Phelps, he set an Olympic record in a 200-meter individual medley semifinal and will seek his fourth gold and sixth medal in tonight's final.
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