07/28/2012 09:11 EDT | Updated 09/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Olympic 100-meter breaststroke swimmers honour late Norwegian Alexander Dale Oen in London

LONDON - Alexander Dale Oen inspired a nation that day last July when he captured the 100-meter breaststroke world championship, then dedicated his triumph to 77 fellow Norwegians killed three days earlier in the country's worst peacetime massacre.

He pointed to the flag on his swim cap and wept on the podium as Norway's national anthem played. By late April, Dale Oen was gone at 26 from heart disease — decades too soon, mere months before he'd been set to represent the best hope of Norwegian swimming gold at the London Games.

South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh now carries Dale Oen's memory into the pool each time he dives off the blocks, along with the three Norwegian Olympic swimmers and so many others at the Aquatics Centre touched by Dale Oen's compassion and competitive spirit.

Dale Oen, with an ear-to-ear grin and those buff biceps he flexed for all to see, surely would have been right there alongside van der Burgh in a neighbouring lane Sunday night for the 100 breaststroke final.

Van der Burgh said Saturday he is dedicating his 100-meter breaststroke event to Dale Oen, the silver medallist in Beijing. And Italian Fabio Scozzoli, who placed second to Dale Oen at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, also vowed to pay tribute.

"It's obviously strange to be in the quorum without him," Van der Burgh said. "We always used to reach each other well for the race. But I can't be focusing about Alex right now. I have to look after myself first and prepare for the race and try to win a medal."

Japan's Kosuke Kitajima aims for his third straight Olympic gold in the 100 breast, and could become the first male swimmer to win the same event in three Olympics.

On Friday night, Norwegian Olympic Committee chief Jarle Aamboe carried a photo of Dale Oen on the inside of his suit jacket near his heart during the opening ceremony in what the delegation considered a respectful way to honour the decorated swimmer.

Dale Oen's world title was the first by a Norwegian, and he had to beat Kitajima to do it. That moment provided a much-needed lift for Norway, where a devastated nation mourned the 77 lost in a politically fueled bombing of a government high-rise and shooting spree at a left-wing party's youth camp. Confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik said he was starting a war against multiculturalism.

Norway never could have imagined mourning Dale Oen — who dedicated his world title to the victims — less than a year later.

"We're carrying him with us all the time, anyway," countrywoman Sara Nordenstam said following her heat in the 400-meter individual medley. "So for us, how the Olympics wants to honour Alex, it doesn't really matter to us because we have our own way of honouring him — that's swimming fast and remembering him and remember everything that he taught us and go for the goals that we set together."

Nordenstam is one of three Norwegian swimmers in London, including the lone male considered the country's future in the sport following Dale Oen's untimely death: Lavrans Solli.

Dale Oen had been training five to six hours a day at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, during the camp this spring. On April 30, he went into cardiac arrest and teammates found him collapsed on the bathroom floor of his hotel. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital.

Nothing had seemed wrong with Dale Oen, whose death came after only a light workout and a round of golf. But teammates became worried when the swimmer spent an unusually long time in the shower and entered his bathroom when he failed to respond to their knocks on the door.

Nobody will forget what his world championship meant on July 25, 2011.

"Yes, I'm so sad," Kitajima said after his preliminary heat Saturday. "Everybody has their own feelings."


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf contributed to this story.