Sydney 2000 – 20 Years On: When Inky, AKA Inge De Bruijn, Reinvented Herself For Triple Gold

2020-09-21 Reading Time: 7 minutes
Inge de Bruijn waved farewell to Olympic waters in 2004 with 4 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals - by Patrick B. Kraemer

This week marks the last few days of the 20th anniversary of the first Olympic Games of the new millennium and a Dutch celebration in the pool that included the reinvention of Inge De Bruijn. The Dutch dasher was 27 when she changed the pace and perspective of women’s sprinting. Here, we recall her bull run in 1999 and 2000 ahead of a series of features on the highlights of a great Games in the pool.

The Pantheon opened its doors to Inge De Bruijn late in the career of a Dutch sprinter transformed almost beyond recognition between summer 1999, when she was pipped for the European 100m freestyle crown by Britain’s Sue Rolph, and a world-record-cracking spree a year later.

The pace and place where De Bruijn left the clock coming out of Sydney 2000 with three gold medals around her neck aged 27 paved the way to a new era in women’s sprint swimming, her dashing dash on freestyle and her 100m ‘fly both shockwave moments on the pathway of progress in the pool:

  • 50 free – in 2015 she was still 6th all-time (textile) at 24.13 from the semi-final and a speed only surpassed in 2013 by the 24.05 of Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED), the 2012 double sprint freestyle champion and four others by 2015, namely the 23.96 of Fran Halsall (GBR) and Cate Campbell (AUS), with Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) also in the 23s on 23.98 in 2014, and the 2015 world champion in 24.12, Bronte Campbell (AUS). In 2020, we find De Bruijn at 10th in textile and 15th all suits.
  • 100 free – by 2020, Inge De Bruijn at her best had slipped to 49th all-time in textile and 57th all suits with her 53.77.
  • 100 ‘fly – still 5th all-time at 56.61 in 2015, the best of Inge De Bruijn remains 9th in textile and 11th all suits. Up to 2015, De Bruijn’s 56.61 would have made the podium at any time in history on the biggest of occasions, while it would have been good for bronze at the last Olympics, Rio 2016, ahead of then 56.63 in which American Dana Vollmer, the 2012 champion, finished third, adrift a 55.48 World record and a victory that made Sarah Sjöstrom the first Swedish woman ever to claim gold in the Olympic pool.

By the close of the Games and the year, the enormity of De Bruijn’s gain on the rest of the world screamed from the the top 10 branches of the tree (the ages of the swimmers are what the clock reads today, not in 2000, a count that shows De Bruijn racing age peers for the most part):

[ranking 2000 FBU0100L 10]

A Generation Ahead Of The Curve

Inge de Bruijn set a blistering pace on butterfly - by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Inge de Bruijn set a blistering pace on butterfly – by Patrick B. Kraemer

The world records established by De Bruijn catapulted the Dutchwoman a generation ahead of her rivals, her three victories put together with the two golds and two bronzes for teammate Pieter Van Den Hoogenband helping to turn the waters of the Homebush pool Orange.

If the eight days of Olympic racing marked De Bruijn’s finest hour, “Inky” had written another record-breaking spree in the books earlier in the year:

On May 20 in Monte Carlo, the swimmer from Barendrecht clocked 25.83 in the 50m butterfly, the first of six world records in 14 days. In Sheffield six days later, she lowered the mark to 25.64 and, half an hour later, equalled the 50m freestyle record of Le Jingji (CHN) at 24.51. A day later, she shattered the 100m butterfly world record in 56.69.

The latter was like a tidal wave washing over world swimming: not only was the average time of the fastest ten women over 59sec at the time, but De Bruijn had wiped 1.19sec off the world record that had stood to Jenny Thompson (USA) and improved from a personal best of 58.49 in 1999, and 59.28 in 1998.

Only the 57.93 of Mary T Meagher (USA) in 1981 – that the effort Thompson had replaced as the world record at Pan Pacs with her 57.88 win – had made such an impact in the history of the event.

Inge de Bruijn, left, chats to Franziska van Almsick on deck at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens - by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Inge de Bruijn, left, chats with Franziska van Almsick on deck at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens – by Patrick B. Kraemer

De Bruijn then confined to history the 100m freestyle standard that had stood to Li since 1994 with the first sub-54sec effort: her 53.80 – faster than the time in which the men’s Olympic title was won in 1960 – came just nine months after she had won what was then the biggest medal of her career, a silver in 55.24sec behind Susan Rolph (GBR) at the European Championships in Istanbul in 1999.

Down at the deep end of Ponds Forge in Sheffield, beyond the diving pool where bewildered folk were swimming down after racing at a rather more modest pace, I sat with De Bruijn to ask her to describe the building blocks of her progress.

Her first reaction was the one that recognised how it all might be perceived, so astonishing was the difference between the De Bruijn we’d watched for much of the previous decade and the one now transformed before our very eyes:

“I don’t know where those swims came from. I’m frightened to call my coach (Paul Bergen) – he won’t believe it. But I’ve worked so hard and that’s all I can say. I never used to work hard. I wasn’t dedicated. I had no motivation. I’ve turned myself around.”

She spoke through tears. Not the well-of-moisture kind but the waterfall variety, drops spilling down her face. Whatever was in the depth of that raw emotion, it was clear that De Bruijn had exceeded her own expectation on the clock. She looked like a woman in shock though realisation that the dream was coming true might more accurately reflect the stirring place she found herself in. She added:

“I’ve stuck to a strict diet, I’ve been pulling my own weight up ropes; doing things in training that I never did before. I thought I could be better before [in previous years] but I never believed it. Paul Bergen showed me what was possible.”

Bergen was based in Oregon at the time. He coached several very big names in the sport, from Tracey Caulkins through to De Bruijn. A decade after Sydney 2000, Bergen was exposed as the coach behind long standing accusations of sexual abuse of minors in the 1970s. He is on a list of targets that victims of abuse and their lawyers intend to pursue until action is finally taken. Bergen remains in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, while Olympic gold medallist Deena Deardurff, who first reported abuse by Bergen that started when she was just 11 years old, waits yet to be recognised by ISHOF.

Inge De Bruijn, courtesy of KNZB
 Inge De Bruijn, courtesy of KNZB

Born in Barendrecht on August 24, 1973, De Bruijn was to be found in her home town in 2015 launching a campaign against sexual abuse under the banner “Sexually inappropriate behaviour. Make a point of it!” The campaign is aimed particularly in realms where young people work under the guidance of adults in specific conditions, realms such as sport. The campaign was launched in a local pool. Said De Bruijn:

“Unfortunately, [there are] people in positions of authority who abuse those [they feel to be] “lesser” than they are, people who are being bullied, belittled, and sometimes even sexually harassed. I am an ambassador for the campaign … because I think it is very important that this vulnerable group of minors and the mentally disabled is protected and that this issue is being discussed openly.”

Inge De Bruijn and a bull run that ended in three golds at Sydney 2000

De Bruijn around. Her pre-Olympics bull run ended back home in Dratchen on June 4, 2000, with a 24.48 effort over 50m freestyle. She had even more impressive speed in her to come, her days of relative mediocrity behind her.

Inge de Bruijn turned her back on relative mediocrity on the way to Sydney 2000 - by Patrick B. Kraemer
 Inge de Bruijn turned her back on relative mediocrity on the way to Sydney 2000 – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Before 1999, De Bruijn’s only medal at world long-course level was won in 1991 as a young member of the Dutch 4x100m freestyle quartet that claimed bronze at the World Championships in Perth.

The same year, she won silver and bronze medals over 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle at the European Championships but then, in her own words, was “too lazy” to do the work necessary to go further.

An also-swam in the final of the 100m freestyle at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1996, De Bruijn was dropped from the Dutch team for the Games in Atlanta because she “lacked motivation” in the eyes of coaches and selectors. The roots of De Bruijn’s success may be traced to that decision. It was in the wake of watching the action in Atlanta on a television screen at home that she resolved to seek Bergen’s guidance.

At the World Championships in Perth, 1998, De Bruijn finished 7th over 100m butterfly in 1:00.09 and 8th in the 100m freestyle, in 56.49. A year later, she swam inside the world record over 50m butterfly and the European record over 100m freestyle but neither of those efforts was recognised because she was not asked to submit for anti-doping tests.

Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn jubilates after taking the gold in the women's 50m Freestyle final at the Athens Olympic Aquatic Centre, Saturday 21 August 2004. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
 Inky – by PBK

Even so, her labours had started to bear fruit. The harvest rolled in at Sydney 2000, where she ploughed over the pride and pace of opponents with three of the most decisive victories in swimming history:

  • she defeated Therese Alshammar (SWE) over 50m freestyle with a world record of 24.32
  • got the better of the same rival over 100m freestyle (53.83 to 54.33, after setting a world record of 53.77 in the semi-final),
  • her triumph in the 100m butterfly by 1.36sec over Martina Moravcova (SVK), in a world record of 56.61 remains the biggest margin of victory seen since the event was introduced in 1956.

At her post-race press conferences in Sydney, the media asked the inevitable questions, the “D” word hanging heavy in the air at the tail end of the China Crisis of the 1990s and with memories of a swimmer in her later 20s ripping through the ranks to three Olympic golds in 1996 on the way to suspension and exit from the sport, Michelle Smith, de Bruin her name in wedlock to Erik de Bruin, the Dutch thrower also suspended for falling foul of anti-doping rules.

Inge De Bruijn, whose Dutch coaches in the 1990s were Jacco Verhaeren in Eindhoven and Fedor Hes in Amsterdam, rejected any notion that she had done anything beyond work hard and turn herself around by fair means.

Dutch Inge de Bruijn jumps into the pool during a training session at the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, Wednesday 11 August 2004. .. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
 Dutch Inge de Bruijn takes the plunge – by Patrick B. Kraemer

After the success of Sydney, she wore a cap at swim meets bearing the word “Princess” after a sponsor and in accordance to the image she liked to portray.

At the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, she claimed three titles, in the 50m butterfly and the 50m and 100m freestyle, but raced rarely between then and the Olympic Games in 2004, when she became the first woman to retain the 50m freestyle title (24.58).

In Greece, she also took silver, behind Jodie Henry (AUS) over 100m freestyle and two bronzes, behind Petria Thomas(AUS) over 100m butterfly and as a member of the Dutch 4x100m freestyle relay. She did not race internationally again and retired officially in 2007.

In 2013, “Inky” entered the 50m free at the European Masters Championships in her home town in Eindhoven. She clocked 26.64.

There was no intention of a full comeback, De Bruijn, an ambassador for a Dutch lingerie firm, preferring the relative comfort zone of the Dutch TV booth at major competitions these days.

Her reinvention for glory at Sydney 2000 reshaped women’s sprinting, raising the bar on imagination and mindset.

Share this post