During the first day of the women's national swimming championships in Sacramento last week all the competitors and all the spectators were wet and cold, nagged by a persistent wind and rain. In the annual championships at each crack of the starter's gun some record usually falls, but at the end of the first blustery day only one American record had been broken. But none of the swimmers, and no one among the sodden crowd, and none of the worrying coaches or bickering officials was really miserable. If the AAU held the women's swimming championships in a gale on the back of an Alaskan glacier it would still be a very cheery show, because today it is completely an affair of youth.
As they go to the starting blocks, the competitors are little girls, many of them clutching toy mascots—funny frogs and fuzzy bears. When they fly off their marks at the gun, in skintight tank suits, they are quite a mature eyeful. As they drive through lap after lap, they become single-minded, relentless robots—young Amazons expending the energy of five ordinary men. Yet when they hit the finish wall in a watery storm, they instantly become girls again: some of the losers may cry and others may laugh off their losses quickly, and sometimes it's the winner who bursts into tears. Watching young girls who can show so many faces and forms of Eve in one afternoon, who could possibly be cheerless, even in the pouring rain?
On the second day of the meet the weather turned toward fair, but it barely mattered. It would have taken militia with bayonets to keep much of the crowd away from the Arden Hills swimming club, one of the new swimming centers that now flourish in northern California for the benefit of middle-income families whose children are drawn to the sport.
It was not necessary for the announcer to explain to the Arden Hills crowd what a medley race is, or any other technicality of the sport. The spectators who soaked on opening day (and subsequently sunned) knew almost all the answers. There were stop watches in almost every hand, and when Mary Stewart, a Canadian invader from Vancouver, broke the American record with 59.2 in the 100-yard butterfly (the best single show of the meet), it was the worst-kept secret at the timers' table.
After each event, as the place winners took the stand to collect their medals, a trio from Sacramento's El Camino High trumpeted wildly on horns, and following this each winner was permitted a free long distance phone call to her loved ones, courtesy of American Tel and Tel.
When butterfly winner Mary Stewart phoned back home to Vancouver she said: "Mother, Mother. My time was 59.2."
Mother answered: "Well, now, that's very good. Oh, by the way, did you win?"
When Roby Whipple won the 100-yard breaststroke, her parents and her friends and teammates from the winning Santa Clara club were on hand. But being 15 and thereby not one to pass up the chance to use a telephone, Roby reached all the way across the U.S to her cousin, Virginia Green, in Westfield, N.J. The conversation:
Roby: This is Roby. I just won the national.
Cousin: National? National what?
After her first victory, an easy one in the 200-yard backstroke, Olympian Donna de Varona tried to phone her 1960 Olympic teammate, Lynn Burke, in Flushing, N.Y. but never connected. It was simply one—and by far the least important—of several connections that Donna did not, or almost did not, make. Entering this meet as the girl to beat, on opening day she paced herself badly in the 100-yard freestyle and did not qualify. She scratched from one of her two strong events, the 400-yard medley, so that swimmers of the Santa Clara club (which she will shortly join) would have a better chance in the scoring. However splendid the gesture, by making it Donna gave up a good opportunity for a tough fight that would have compelled her to swim all out right to the finish in record time to be sure of beating the actual winner, Sharon Finneran, a seasoned Floridian who this winter migrated to California for further seasoning.
On the second day, in her other specialty, the 200-yard medley, Donna almost missed again. As the transplanted Floridian, Sharon Finneran, closed fast on the last lap, Donna got to the wall first by a stroke, lowering her own American record to 2:18.9 to do it. On the final day Donna also won the 100-yard backstroke, and this time it was a matter of inches. For a reigning queen who will not be 15 until this week, a few misses and close calls, three titles and one new American record are not bad at all. For Donna the path ahead to the next Olympics is still unobstructed, but the water right behind her is getting very crowded.
While Donna was scrambling, Robyn Johnson, a tall, slim-hipped Virginian, who did not win a national title until she was 15 and can honestly be classed as a latecomer, swam away from all the freestylers with power to spare. By winning the 100-, the 250- and the 500-yard freestyle (in the last two events doing better than Olympian Chris von Saltza ever did) Robyn became the fastest American ever.
Fifteen-year-old Terri Stickles was the private pick of northern Californians to dominate the freestyle events (she has a 54.9 American-record 100 now up for approval), but Terri was beaten each time by Robyn's masterful finishes. Robyn is able to breathe on either side during a race. Terri turns her head only to the left. Going up pool, Terri could see Robyn but coming back she swam blind.
"I let her set all the pace," said Robyn. "In a race I like to swim close to the rope, next to the girl I want to beat."
In the 100, Mary Stewart of Vancouver set the early pace, was caught by Terri Stickles at 50 yards, and then all of a sudden Robyn, almost unnoticed in third spot, pounced on them both. She won by a full yard in 55.5.
In the 500 the next day Terri Stickles worked to a half-length lead and seemed about to move away. But in the final 100 Terri began to roll and then slice her right arm under the water, and Robyn went by her in beautiful form, setting a new American record, 5:27.2.
By the time the final freestyle, the 250, came around, the Arden Hills crowd was aware that Robyn could and probably would come from behind. In the 250 Terri set a quicker pace, but it was no good. Robyn was always right there, looking her in the eye. At the gun lap Robyn bolted forward, and the issue was settled. Her time of 2:34.6 was a second and a half better than Chris von Saltza's American mark.
"When I made the last turn I saw Stan [her coach]," Robyn said. "I thought of all the work we had done, and I decided to pour it on." And it was obvious that if pressed she would have been able to pour on even more. At this glorious point on her way to the Tokyo Olympics, for Robyn both the water ahead and behind seem to be clear of rivals.