LONDON (Reuters) - Ranomi Kromowidjojo secured her place in Dutch swimming history on Saturday with a second sprint title at the London Games, making her the fastest woman in the pool just two years after a bout of viral meningitis that had her fearing for her career.
The 21-year-old, born and raised in the Netherlands but of Surinamese and Indonesian extraction, joins an illustrious line of Dutch sprinters, including the woman she looked up to, Olympic champion Inge de Bruijn, who won the sprint double and the 100 butterfly at Sydney, setting world records in all three.
“It’s a great feeling to be the next Dutch Olympic champion,” Kromowidjojo said, clutching her gold medal.
Kromowidjojo was not the fastest off the blocks, but she was in front from the start in the 50 meters freestyle, powering through the shortest but most aggressive Olympic swimming race to finish 0.23 seconds ahead of Belarus’ Aliaksandra Herasimenia, breaking the Olympic record in the process.
Herasimenia, who had already secured her country’s first Olympic swimming medal with a silver in the 100 freestyle, took second place again in the shorter sprint.
Kromowidjojo’s compatriot Marleen Veldhuis, watched from the stands by her two-year-old daughter, took bronze.
The journey has not been smooth for Kromowidjojo, who two years ago contracted meningitis during a training camp, just two weeks before the 2010 European Championships. But she said she came out of that setback stronger than ever before.
“Three or four months after the illness I felt better than ever. There was a moment I realized I could swim faster,” she said, though the period was not without moments of doubt.
“Two years ago, I didn’t think I’d be here, with two golds and a silver. I‘m really happy I‘m healthy, and I‘m strong.”
In taking both sprint titles, Kromowidjojo takes on the mantle of German Olympic champion Britta Steffen, who won the sprint double in Beijing.
Steffen, competing in her fourth Olympics, failed to qualify for the 100 freestyle final in London and came fourth in Saturday’s race, missing out on the podium by just 0.07 seconds.
Swedish world champion and five-time Olympian Therese Alshammar, plagued by a pinched nerve in her neck, came sixth, behind home favorite and British hopeful Fran Halsall.
Better known as a relay swimmer before London, the 21-year-old Kromowidjojo was a favorite for the sprints before the Olympics began, after breaking out as an individual swimmer at the world championships in Shanghai last year and notching up the fastest times this year.
Having helped the Dutch team to win gold in the 4x100 freestyle in Beijing, she helped them to silver in the same event in London, one of the first races of the competition.
Four days later, though, she fulfilled her sprint promise.
She won the 100 freestyle in a time of 53 seconds, twice breaking the Olympic record along the way.
She then qualified fastest for the shorter sprint, with a time of 24.07 seconds - the fastest time for the distance this year - before winning the final a day later in 24.05.
Kromowidjojo trains with Jacco Verhaeren, well known for guiding Dutch swimmers to gold. He coached Pieter van den Hoogenband and de Bruijn to 15 Olympic medals between them.
Verhaeren said he spent a year fine-tuning Kromowidjojo’s technique after working on endurance and volume.
“Dutch women are made for sprinting, if you look at their bodies,” he said. “But Ranomi’s an exception. She’s something special, a unique swimmer.”
Like many of the swimmers coming out of the grueling week of races, Kromowidjojo said she would take a break.
Kromowidjojo, whose parents have run a karate school together for 30 years, said she is considering her options including work in the media but would not make a decision until after her holiday.
“We will have a conversation in a few weeks,” her coach Verhaeren said. “We haven’t discussed any future plans.”
Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques