Man has been swimming up and down measured pools for more than 60 years, yet last weekend it came as a shock to several hundred of America's best swimmers and their coaches to discover just how little they really know about the ultimate possibilities of the sport. For not only did these athletes break every one of the 14 National AAU meet records that looked so imposing—nay, invincible—just one year ago, they also set new American marks in 12 of them. And when the violent assault on the shimmering green water of the Yale University pool finally was over, no one in the steeply banked galleries would bet against the chance that all 14 records might be wiped out next year.
Their expectations are understandable. After all, they had just seen Steve Clark, a 17-year-old senior at Los Altos (Calif.) High School, surpass the 100- and 220-yard freestyle records set last year by Olympic hero Jeff Farrell. They also saw half a dozen other teen-agers dip under established records only to finish behind more experienced competitors.
Each time he stood erect on the starting blocks, Clark's round head, almost bald after getting a premeet haircut from his coach, George Haines ("Well, he told me to cut it short," grinned Haines), reflected the glare of a battery of TV floodlights. It was a comic sight, but the comedy ended the moment he got under way. He won both races with a daring series of flip turns in which he whirled around on his side, rather than directly over, and which he executed with such speed that he disappeared into each one like the last soap bubble down a bathtub drain.
In winning the 100, the lean but baby-faced Clark defeated the fastest field ever assembled. His start was perfect—he cracked the water a foot ahead of his closest opponent—and he built that lead precisely and powerfully to win by two yards. It was the workmanlike performance of a much older campaigner, but at 17 Clark is in fact an Olympic veteran, having been an alternate on the relay. His unusual confidence was a vital factor in his aggressive start.
April 10, 1961
In the distance races the most experienced competitor of them all, Australia's handsome, blond Murray Rose, owner of four Olympic gold medals, proved at 22 that he is still the best tactical swimmer in the sport's history. He teased the rest of the field for two-thirds of his 1,500-meter swim, then burst away with a sprint that broke his rivals' spirit. A junior at Southern California, Rose was still "a bit tired" from scoring a triple victory in the NCAA meet the week before but added the AAU 440 title Saturday night with no trouble.
Rose's USC teammate, 21-year-old Chuck Bittick, led Southern Cal to its fourth consecutive team title by winning both backstroke events as well as the punishing 400-yard individual medley, breaking the American record each time.
Undoubtedly the most satisfying performance at New Haven was that of a short, muscular premedical student from Indiana University, Chet Jastremski, who missed the Olympic team last summer when the U.S. mistakenly took two, rather than the allotted three, breaststrokers to Rome. Swimming ferociously in a stroke that normally looks gentle, Jastremski chugged into an early lead in Friday night's 220-yard final, sucking quick, deep gulps of air, with his head placed far forward and out, like the bow of a tugboat plowing through a choppy river. His pace halfway through the race was so much faster than planned that his coach, Jim Counsilman, threw his hands up over his face and moaned "Oh, no" while almost everyone else in the cavernous amphitheater unconsciously swayed back and forth in rhythm with his strokes. "He's gonna die, he's gonna die," exclaimed one saucer-eyed young pessimist, who—after Jastremski had sliced a full eight seconds off the American record—edited himself down to: "Well, well, well—he didn't die."
Next night, Jastremski followed the same go-for-broke strategy to become the first man ever to swim the 100-yard breaststroke in less than a minute, his time of 59.6 seconds beating a field of collegiate champions by more than the length of his 5-foot-9 body.
For all this meet's superlative performances—and they establish beyond question America's right to call itself the world's No. 1 swimming power for another year at least—the mood of the future was best exemplified by Coach George Haines after Steve Clark had swum his 100-yard freestyle in an unheard-of 46.8 seconds. Haines squeezed the big silver stop watch in his palm and shouted, "I'm never gonna change this watch. We'll seal it at 46.8." But when the next event began Haines suddenly cleared the watch back to zero, stared at the starting line and said: "We're not superstitious. We'll put 45.4 on this watch."