In the six years since they took their worst beating at the hands of their Australian hosts in the 1956 Olympic Games, American male swimmers have been scrambling to get back in front. Whatever doubts remained about American swimmers after their close fights with Australia and Japan at the Rome Games two years ago were dissolved last week in Bartlesville, Okla. As challengers replaced champions and the records fell in the men's national championship in Bartlesville, it was clear that in every stroke—even in distance events dominated by Australia and Japan of late—the U.S. was back in charge.
In the first hours of the meet, in the seemingly endless laps of the 1,500-meter freestyle, one 17-year-old California boy, Roy Saari, did about as much for his country as any swimmer could do in a single race. Dragging his legs in an odd scissors style, pulling himself through lap after lap, high schooler Saari swept under the bright orange finish flags in 16:54.1, the first swimmer in the world to go 1,500 meters in less than 17 minutes, cutting 28 seconds off the American record and leaving the veterans of two Olympics nearly a pool length behind him.
Saari's immediate reward was a novel one. He received several minutes of almost uninterrupted silence from spectators and officials. It was a respectful, churchlike silence—no one on the deck or in the gallery could wholly believe what he had just seen. Still, there in lane 3, near the finish floated Saari, pulling in deep draughts of air. He was real, all right, and across the pool, motionless, on his back in a funereal pose, lay Australia's three-time Olympic Champion Murray Rose, who stayed above water by draping his blond head across a lane marker. Between the two, holding onto the edge of the pool in lane 4, Japan's Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, an Olympic medalist in 1956 and 1960, stared thoughtfully ahead—at nothing. And on the wet tile deck of the pool, standing in the cluster of timers, who could not bring themselves to write down what they read on the watches in their hands, another Australian Olympic champion, John Konrads, who owns most of the world freestyle records, looked steadily down at Saari. Rose and Yamanaka had swum the fastest times of their lives and still taken a sound beating; Konrads had not recorded a fast enough time this year even to qualify for the final heat with Saari.
The Olympic veterans had ample opportunity to outsmart—or outswim—Saari in the 220-and 440-yard freestyle races on the following two days, but none of them did. Saari won his second title the next night, winning a perfectly paced 220 by a finger-length over two other California teen-agers—18-year-old Ed Townsend and 15-year-old Don Schollander, both of whom joined him in breaking the American record.
April 16, 1962
In the opinion of Saari's father (who is also his coach), the final race—the 440—is the one in which "Murray Rose is the most dangerous competitor in the world." When Saari burst past Rose in the last 40 yards of still another record-breaking race, the overflowing gallery, no longer stifled by awe or disbelief, was on its feet, cheering.
Murray Rose sat on the edge of the pool for many minutes after the 440, the race he had owned for nearly seven years. "That boy," grinned the 23-year-old Olympian, "is really hot. I really thought I had him in this one, but it looks like he's just too much for us old beggars." By taking dead aim and beating the best swimmers the world has to offer, Saari has made a target of himself. He is now the pacesetter, the man to beat.
The bold march of youth to the front ranks of international competition—rare in other sports—is becoming fairly routine in swimming. In this year's nationals almost half of the 72 finalists in individual races were high schoolers and college freshmen, most of them products of the AAU's vast age-group program and improved coaching at secondary school level. In the whole meet only the durable and rock-hard collegians of the University of Indiana, winning eight events, were able to keep the rampant high schoolers from taking the lion's share.
Officials and coaches, remembering the dark days of the 1956 Games and the hard road back to Rome, have little doubt that with Saari and the rest of the high school pack the U.S. is now back on top in men's as well as women's swimming.
Though the country's swimming future seems safe, not one of the young swimmers who is making it so—not even one as good as Saari—can be equally sure of his own future. In girls' swimming, which has never enjoyed the benefits of a serious collegiate program, for some years extreme youth has prevailed. And as the youngest pacesetter of them all, 14-year-old Donna de Varona, confides in the story of her short, tough competitive life, beginning on the next page, every swimmer must live with the thought that there are still younger, faster kids coming up.