If the U.S. Supreme Court had decided this winter that, for the public good, the all-powerful University of Michigan swimming team should be divided, like all Gaul, into three parts, no one would have benefited except Michigan. At the National Collegiate Championships at Cornell last weekend, if they had swum as three separate teams, the men of Michigan could have won first place, second place and third. As it was, as a single team, Michigan put the usual loyal opposition—Ohio State, Yale and Michigan State—to rout.
Decisive victories in swimming most often are marked by exceptional performances by top men. Michigan's victory was not like that. Michigan had few chiefs, but plenty of Indians, and they attacked en masse like Sioux against the Seventh Cavalry.
In 11 of the 16 events at the national meet, the favorite to win was not a Michigan man. But in almost every instance, as the non-Michigan favorite took his mark in the center lane for the finals, he had one Michigan man on his right and another on his left. Michigan wound up the three-day meet with a record-breaking 137½ points, leaving second-place Ohio State 93½ points behind.
College swimming coaches are apt, in a close situation, to bicker like fishmongers over a technicality, and in a year when they have no good material, to preach somewhat about the hustling tactics of a rival coach who has a good team. For all that, they are most generous in their praise of any rival team which is mopping them up. There was never any college team to equal this one from Michigan, and it rated record applause from coaches for the way it asserted itself in the nationals. The team was such a sure bet that it ran the risk of falling off, but instead it actually exceeded even the expectations of experts.
April 6, 1959
Swimming is, by and large, a sport that follows established "form" and, unfortunately for swimming's own good, when a talent-heavy team dominates a meet the contest seems more cut and dried than it actually is. In any meet, there are many small matters that can contribute to success or downfall without coming to the notice of the casual spectator.
A spectator, for example, not close enough to see the details, might have concluded at the national championships that Gary Morris of Iowa, as good a bet as any to take either or both the 50- or 100-yard freestyle, was not up to form. He did not get into the final of the 50, not from failing to swim, but because of a minute detail of a moment. He was rocking back on his mark at the gun. The place in the finals that, by the books, should have been his went to Carl Woolley of Michigan.
In the violence with which 100-yard freestyle finalists hit a turn these days—boiling and showering water as they flip, doubling up for a split second into a prenatal ball, then rocketing off into the next lap—a spectator some distance away can miss seeing swimmers foul up their turns. In the finals of the 100-yard freestyle, Morris missed a turn and lost the title to Michigan's sophomore sprinter, Frank Legacki.
A spectator who follows the sport might have been aware that Harvard's good freestyler, Bruce Hunter, stood a chance in both short events, but for some reason, after a fair showing in the 50, he disappeared from the scene. The spectators could not see that in the flurry of spray in the 50-yard final Hunter hit the finish wall so hard that he broke an arm.
THE PRICE OF A SCALP
The spectator sees Michigan's diver Joe Gerlach suddenly collapse in the peak of a reverse dive and flop through his entry like a rag doll. The spectator can only presume this is an extreme loss of form, when actually it was more a matter of self-preservation. Gerlach felt himself coming down on the board and, to avoid having 35 stitches taken in his scalp (such as Diver Estel Mills of Iowa suffered earlier this season), he tried to pull away from the board and lost himself in the air.
The spectator seeing Fred Westphal post a new collegiate record of 21.9 in the 50-yard sprint might conclude that this Cornell pool that serves Westphal so well is also helping Frank McKinney, the Olympic bronze medalist from Indiana, set a new mark of 2:01.4 for the 200-yard backstroke. Though it would seem obvious that a pool that helps one man should help all, this is not necessarily true. A 50-yard expert like Westphal swims half of his race (one length of the pool) through clean, unruffled water. After the first pool length in equally calm water, a 200-yard backstroker like McKinney must plow back through troubled waters for seven laps in a rough pool; he accordingly suffers more. The spectator, conditioned more to thinking in terms of track, is inclined to wonder why Michigan's coach, Gus Stager, should have a half dozen of his finest swimmers go almost all-out in their heats (trackmen will often coast in their heats). Unlike the trackman, the swimmer races in his heat not only to make the final but to earn a specific lane near the center, where in the confusion of a race he can keep some sort of eye on the men he must beat.
Almost every team lost some points through mistakes or bad luck, and it is the special glory of the Michigan team that they gave precious little away by either error or mischance. "I am not a very well-organized person," Michigan Coach Stager said in the middle of the meet. "However much we are ahead, I always worry that I have urged some boy not to make any mistake and then, by advice I give him, I'll make a mistake."
The particular quality of swimming that cannot be easily explained is the seemingly chronic incapacity of veterans to defend their titles from newcomers. While Michigan's power made this year's championship an unusual affair from the team standpoint, from an individual standpoint it was a very typical meet—10 of 13 defending champions were beaten. Michigan's sophomore David Gillanders won both butterfly events by edging his junior teammate Tony Tashnick, who had won both NCAA meet events last year as a sophomore. Senior Tim Jecko of Yale—who had won both events two years ago as a sophomore—this year tied Tashnick for second at 100 yards but dropped back to fifth at 200 yards. There are so many instances every year of veterans swimming faster but falling behind that one gets the feeling that these swimming meets are being controlled by Lewis Carroll from his backward world behind the looking glass.
Coach Matt Mann, age 74, in the past 50 years has had a share in the building of three swimming teams. He coached at Yale before Bob Kiphuth built it into the country's first stronghold. Then, after building Michigan into a powerhouse, Mann retired and five years ago, like a benevolent Aaron Burr, began building a Southwest swimming empire at Oklahoma. Before this year's meet began, watching the new Michigan men who are better than any team he turned out, Mann was shouting with joy. "I'm Oklahoma now, but you can't help taking delight in seeing any team as good as the one Gus Stager has here. I'm loyal to Oklahoma now, and it will be a distinct pleasure to keep coming back and try to take these Michigan men down a notch."