Allison Wagner touched the wall after 400 meters of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, an exhausting individual medley. In her hypoxic state, her mind honed in on a rather unusual detail of the setting that she has retained for 20 years.
“I was in shock, and the first thing I noticed were the shadows on the wall,” said Wagner, the silver-medal winner of the 400 IM at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. “The sun was setting, as I remember it, and I found myself focusing on the prettiness of the way the light was coming into the natatorium.”
It is an ethereal image, one that might have held even more meaning and poetry had the results of Wagner’s race been different. Wagner finished second to Ireland’s Michelle Smith, whose 400 IM triumph was one of three she earned in Atlanta, making her perhaps the singular star of the swimming program of those Games.
While hounded by suspicions and accusations of performance-enhancing drug use, Smith (who now goes by Smith de Bruin) passed drug tests at the Olympics. In 1998, however, she was banned by the international swimming federation (FINA) for four years for tampering with a urine sample provided on an unannounced drug-test visit to her home, a vindicating moment for those who believed her golds had not been won fairly.
The ban effectively ended Smith’s career. But because she had passed the drug test at the Games, she retained her Atlanta golds, though the court of public opinion has judged strongly against her. Twenty years after she was awarded silver in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center — now the McAuley Aquatic Center — Wagner wants to take the final step of being recognized as the rightful champion of the 400 IM champion of the 1996 Summer Olympics. She is seeking to petition the International Olympic Committee review the race to possibly award her the gold.
“It’s an injustice,” she said. “If it’s possible to pursue a rectification of an injustice, I’d like to do that.”
The IOC has been willing to consider retroactively stripping medal winners. In November, the IOC asked the international track and field federation to take action against Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency made accusations of widespread doping and state-sponsored cover-ups. The IOC was willing to strip medals if warranted.
Wagner, who turned 39 on July 21, is not the case of a woman who has wandered the world bitter for the past 20 years. She lives in San Francisco, employed in marketing and development for a maternity-products company (Simple Wishes), putting her Pilates training to work by helping clients with spinal and joint alignments, doing speaking engagements and also selling artwork, mostly abstract paintings.
“It’s kind of like the individual medley of workplace life,” she said. “I like to keep things mixed up.”
She recognizes that life probably would be different had she emerged from the pool the winner of the gold medal and not the silver.
“Generally speaking, I think that’s just the way life works,” she said. “There’s one thing that happens, and it’s subsequently a chain reaction. One event affects the other and so on.”
The 400 IM in Atlanta perhaps was the peak of her career, achieved the day before her 19th birthday. She set a short-course (25-meter pool) record in the 200 IM in 1993. She was a national champion in the 200 and 400 IM’s in 1994 and was an 11-time All-American at Florida. Her career, however, was marked by losses in major international meets to swimmers who were either suspected of doping or were later found to have used performance enhancers.
She stopped swimming in the late ’90s and didn’t pick up serious training again until about 2004, when she trained until the 2008 Olympic Trials. She did not make the team.
“I just wanted to do a swim career in the way that I wanted to do it,” she said.
Wagner said she began to consider petitioning the IOC around the time that cyclist Lance Armstrong had his seven Tour de France titles revoked for his doping program.
“In my mind, you’re pursuing excellence with integrity,” she said of the Olympic spirit. “I think it’s about time the Olympics is cleaned up.”
In her effort to gain the attention of the IOC, she has engaged the U.S. Olympic Committee for guidance and assistance.
“I was surprised at the response I got,” she said. “And while nothing’s happened, I’ve been encouraged by people’s opinion on the matter and the responses I’ve gotten.”
Perhaps no response was more emphatic than one she received the night of July 20, 1996, the night she finished second to Smith. Finishing third was Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi, a five-time gold medalist.
Said Wagner, “After we both climbed out of the pool, she came up to me and wished me congratulations and said I was the real winner of the race.”