It was 6:30 a.m. when the station wagon turned into a silent Houston street and stopped. The horn sounded, and after a few minutes a comely, blue-eyed girl with tousled blonde hair emerged sleepily from her college dorm. In one hand she carried a box of cereal and two half-pint cartons of milk, in the other a textbook and a handbag. With two other equally sleepy girls from the dorm she piled into the station wagon.
Half an hour later, at a junior high school in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the driver stopped. The girls stepped into a dressing room to change into tank suits. Still drowsy, they moved languidly into the cool half-light of the school's pool and eased slowly into the water.
So started a typical day for 19-year-old Carin Alice Cone (see cover), one of the finest swimmers of her generation and this country's chief hope to win a gold medal in the women's backstroke at the Olympics. This week she goes after her 17th and 18th national titles in the women's AAU meet at Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
After giving the girls time to warm up a bit, Coach Phill Hansel, who had driven the station wagon, called out, "All right, kick 50. Set, ho!" Carin and her friends, Freestyler Brenda Dietz and Backstroker Eileen Murphy, splashed away on the first lap of a tough 1½-hour workout. Toward the end, as the school began to stir, a bugle call blared shatteringly from a loudspeaker at the pool, and a boy's earnest soprano voice intoned, "I pledge allegiance to the flag...."
April 18, 1960
Panting and wheezing, the girls climbed from the pool, flopped beside it and rested for a minute or two. Then they changed in the dressing room, got back into the station wagon and headed toward Houston. On the way, Carin opened the box of cereal, poured milk into it and, producing a plastic spoon from her handbag, began to eat. This was breakfast. Between bites she skimmed a few pages of the textbook. At 9 the station wagon pulled up to a University of Houston classroom building. Carin smoothed her damp hair and hurried inside to be on time for a psychology exam. A straight-A student, she was not particularly concerned over it.
"That girl," said Hansel as he pulled away, "crams an awful lot of living into 24 hours."
ALWAYS A SWIMMER
From childhood Carin Cone has done an extraordinary amount of her living while wearing a swimsuit. Her home then, as now, was in Ridge-wood, N.J. When she was 6 her parents enrolled her in a Red Cross swimming course. At 9 she took advanced lessons at the Women's Swimming Association pool in Manhattan.
"Originally these were just to improve my form," Carin says. "But when I found out they had a team I had to be on it."
On it she went, and into subjunior competition as a freestyler. At 10 she was given the backstroke by her instructor, Mrs. Marie Giardine, who was partial to it. "She was a very bright girl," Mrs. Giardine says. "If you told her something once she would never forget it."
By 1955, at the age of 15, Carin was the best female backstroker in the country, a fact she proved by winning both backstroke races in the AAU outdoor meet. A year later she swept all of the AAU backstroke championships, outdoors and in. It was an Olympic year. Not since 1932, when the glamourous Eleanor Holm (who also trained at the WSA pool) won, had an American girl swum backward fast enough to become an Olympic champion.
Carin came agonizingly close at Melbourne. All six watches caught the New Jersey girl and England's Judy Grinham in exactly 1:12.9. After much talk, the judges decided for Judy. Had the decision been reversed Carin almost certainly would have retired from world class competition. There was no higher goal to seek. She could have ended her year-round training grind. She could have turned to ice skating and tennis—sports which she likes but has had to pass up because they would make a mess of her swimming form. Instead, Carin settled down to four more years of training, revealing a depth of determination worthy of a Ted Williams after the batting title or a Maurice Richard after goals. "It won't happen again," she said the other day, referring to her loss at Melbourne, and it was hard to believe it would.
In the fall of 1958 Carin enrolled at the University of Houston. She went there for one reason, to swim for Hansel. Hansel, Carin had observed, was one of the few topflight college coaches who took women swimmers seriously.
"He was one of the most sincere people I met at the nationals," she says. "Besides, he smiled. A lot of coaches don't seem to be able to do that."
Hansel had come to Houston from Portland, Oregon the year before to start a swimming team from scratch. He had only an outdoor pool to work with at the university, but he was an indefatigable recruiter. When Carin arrived at the start of his second season, Hansel had no fewer than 30 men and four other girls on his roster.
They all received a nasty surprise at Christmastime in 1958 when the university decided that it could not afford the team after all, abruptly let Hansel go and left the swimmers adrift. Most of them transferred to other schools, and in the national collegiates last month three of the transferees scored 22 points, winning one first, one third, three fourths and one fifth place.
Unable to find another collegiate coaching job, Hansel decided to stay on in Houston. He now manages the Shamrock Hilton hotel's splendid 55-yard outdoor pool, gives lessons and sells securities on the side.
THE GIRLS GO ALONG
Carin and her roommate, Brenda Dietz (Eileen Murphy hadn't yet come to Houston), decided to string along with Hansel. On a two-sessions-a-day schedule Carin swam from three to three and a half miles a day.
Through spring and summer Carin was unbeatable. First, she swept the indoor AAU backstroke championships. During the summer vacation she stayed on at Houston, living in a guest house at the Hansels' suburban home. In July she starred in the AAU outdoor meet, setting a world record for the 220-yard backstroke, and in September completed her finest competitive season by winning her 100-meter race in the Pan American Games, then driving to a world record of 1:11.4 for the same distance on her leg of the medley relay.
The best account of those days is in Carin's diary, which she has kept for years. Of July 17, date of the 220-yard AAU outdoor race, she wrote: "I took the lead from the start and did as Phill told me. I kept saying, 'I'm not tired, I'm not tired,' and I sprinted in and out of my turns. I won the darn thing in 2:37.9. It's a world record.... Golly, that 37.9 sounds so much better than a 38 flat."
On July 19: "I won the 110 in 1:13.3. I hadn't set a world record so I wasn't at all pleased that I had set an American record."
On September 6, date of the Pan American races: "It was a beautiful day, and I felt good when I woke up...powerful. The day was mine. I kidded around all morning long. Phill sat with me before I swam, and he could see how keyed up I was.... I went out ahead in the 100 [meters], but I got choppy in the second lap. I just kept pulling through. I won in 1:12.2. Ugh. Our medley relay went wild. I went 1:11.4, a world record."
As the fall semester opened and the days grew cool, Hansel was out hunting for a training pool. In November he got Carin into the small, 20-yard heated outdoor pool of the Shakespeare Swim Club. On November 5, Carin wrote in her diary:
"Swimming was really exciting. It was awfully cold, especially in the dressing room-without-a-roof. The water was nice and warm, though, and I enjoyed swimming; we did a mile and a half, and I did the first part freestyle. It wasn't too bad except at the last when I had to swim backstroke. My nose froze from one end to the other; it would just about get all thawed out during the turns. Then it would freeze again. Phill bravely stood by the edge of the pool and held our beach towels for us."
Hansel did better than that. By mid-February he had Carin indoors—for an hour and a half on weekday mornings at the Pasadena school and another hour and a half in late afternoon at a high school in another suburb of Bellaire, 30 minutes from the university in the opposite direction from Pasadena. There was a lot of commuting to be done, but no longer did Carin and the other aquatic gypsies, Brenda and Eileen, have to shiver when a Texas norther blew in.
On the day of Carin's quiz Phill Hansel joined a visitor in a late breakfast. He ate sparingly and spoke warmly of his protégée.
"This may sound corny," he said, "but if there was ever an all-American girl, she's Carin Cone. I knew her first when I coached another girl, Maureen Murphy (no kin to Eileen), who was trying to beat Carin. I was just a little concerned when Carin told me she wanted to swim for me. She was already a star, of course. In five minutes she removed the slightest doubt about her attitude. She is not a prima donna. From the time she landed here it was, 'You're the coach,' and 'Whatever you say.'
"Naturally I'm a little unhappy about all this jumping about from one pool to another, but I'm not one who subscribes to the theory that the workouts are a lot of unpleasantness or a lot of sacrifice. We don't take it so seriously that we tie ourselves up in knots over it."
Later in the day Carin dropped in at the home of her "foster family," the William Bakers. (Hansel, who had managed to round up his team for Houston with hardly a Texan on it, had thoughtfully arranged for homes away from home for his swimmers.) Finding no one in, Carin helped herself to a couple of scoops of ice cream from the. refrigerator and plopped down on a couch.
She dispatched the ice cream and talked matter-of-factly about her life in swimming. Despite the training routine, she said, she had time to date and dance, to see an occasional movie and spin a Frank Sinatra record on her phonograph. She was unselfconsciously proud of having been voted one of the 10 "most beautiful" girls on campus.
She was rather more proud of her swimming records, and not amused by the memory of a wire-service reporter who, boning up on her career at the Pan American Games, told her he guessed she was "the female Frank McKinney." McKinney is a tremendous backstroke man at Indiana University, and Carin told the reporter she guessed he was right. Thinking it over at the Bakers', she sat up a little straighter and blurted out, "But I want to be me."
By and by the Bakers came in and were delighted to see Carin. There wasn't much time to chat. With a national meet just around the corner, the Roman meet of meets on the horizon and the probability of stiff opposition from Backstrokers Lyn Burke and Christine Kluter of the U.S., and Margaret Edwards of Britain, Carin considered every workout vital. She left soon to report for her afternoon stint.
A spectator watching Carin's trim, black-clad figure moving powerfully back and forth, on and on, found himself meditating on the 11 years this girl had been in competition and on an innocent remark she had made earlier in the day.
"I wonder," she said, "what you do in a pool just for fun."