SYDNEY-What's it like to finish fourth in a race that awards only three medals? How does it feel to train for years only to see the glory slip from your grasp by 17 seconds in a two-hour race?
"It feels great," said Joanna Zeiger, who ran fourth in the first women's triathlon in Olympic history Saturday. "Nobody thought the Americans could do it. We showed that we could and I feel proud to represent my country and to come in a top place. It's amazing.
"I certainly hope people in the States and all over the world will look at this race and say, 'Ah, triathlon.'"
Though there were no medals for the American women they had plenty to smile about as triathlon burst onto the Olympic stage with an exciting splash.
The Swiss surprised the favored Australians by taking the gold and bronze medals, but the overlooked U.S. women finished fourth, sixth and 13th.
Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland outdueled Australian Michellie Jones down the stretch to win the gold by two seconds while Magali Messmer of Switzerland finished third. It was a thrilling finish that saw the top four exchanging the lead until McMahon and Jones pulled away.
Thousands of people lined the streets around Sydney Harbor to watch the grueling competition that includes swimming 1,500 meters, cycling 40 km and running 10,000 meters. People were 15 deep along parts of the course as whole families camped out to be part of the fun. Even Chelsea Clinton came out to watch.
The only thing marring the popular race was a crash during the cycling leg that knocked several women out of the competition, including medal contender, Carol Montgomery of Canada. Sheila Taormina, who won a swimming gold medal in 1996, had a 30-second lead after the swim.
"Coming out of the swim in the lead and seeing the crowd, that was so fun and emotional," said Taormina, who finished sixth. "I got to really have fun on the cycling leg and see my family on the sidelines."
She said she ran out of gas on the run because after only two years in the sport her endurance isn't what it could be.
"I spent two minutes swimming in Atlanta and now I'm out there for two hours," she said. "But I wanted to give it all I had. I thought I might die like a pig, but you've got to go for it because you still might die like a pig if you don't...I don't have to go home and say 'what if?' "Taormina is a former waitress from Livonia, Mich., who attended the University of Georgia.
Zeiger's gritty performance thrilled many in the crowd as she made a strong move during the run even though she dropped her inhaler about 1 km into that leg.
"I gave it everything I had," she said, though she did have to slow up on the hills so she wouldn't trigger an athsma attack. "My main two goals were I wanted to be out there in the middle of the race. Then I wanted to know I had given it everything I had.
"I can't even describe the feeling of being on the course and seeing the crowd."
In describing her race Zeiger said the swim was the most difficult because with more than 48 women diving in the water at once, there's a lot of congestion.
The 61-degree water in Sydney Harbour also is home to sharks, but none were sighted during the race, which was accompanied by six divers using special shark-repellent devices.
"There are a lot of bodies out there and flailing hands," she said. "People are bumping into you. I actually had my goggles knocked off a couple of times. I know I hit plenty of people, too, and I want to apologize to them because it wasn't intentional.
"I felt strong in the bike and was with a group of teammates who helped me along.
"Then off the bike I tried to stay on the leaders shoulders. I closed the gap, and I think I was momentarily in front, but they were still there. At 6 or 7 k they made a move and I couldn't keep up with them."
Zeiger is a doctoral student in genetic epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
The third member of the U.S. team, Jennifer Gutierrez, finished 13th. She is a gym teacher from Denver.