If there is one thing Bobby McGregor hates, it is swimming first thing in the morning. Bobby is a tall, lithe 20-year-old Scot and one of the fastest swimmers in history. He is also one of the most reluctant, which may account for the fact that he is a solid favorite for the 100-meter freestyle gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics at an age when many top racing swimmers are burned out. Bobby approaches his daily 7:30 a.m. workout with deep revulsion. He walks into the pool at the shallow end, shuddering. His chest is puffed out and he tiptoes slowly forward, delaying the moment of total immersion as long as possible.
This is the beginning of a light day's training, which Bobby himself describes as "a triviality." He thinks he should perhaps be putting in two tough two-hour pool sessions every day, but, well, his architectural studies in Glasgow take time, and all he actually manages is an hour and a half mornings and an hour evenings. Anyway, he doesn't really believe in the modern school of swim-till-it-hurts self-torture. "It is the quality of training that counts," he says, "not the quantity."
Two weeks before a big meet Bobby cuts his meager workouts drastically—often swimming no more than 500 yards a day—and if that seems to be making him stale he simply chucks the whole business and goes fishing.
For Bobby this low-pressure routine has produced startling success. In the past 10 months no other swimmer has come within a second of his best 110-yard performances—and in the sprints a second is a big chunk of time. Bobby set his first world record last July at 110 yards—two feet more than 100 meters and a common sprint distance in the nonmetric countries. That was in the 55-yard salt-water pool at Blackpool, England, and Bobby's time was 54.4 seconds. In August he chipped that to 54.1 and in September to 54 seconds flat, where the record now stands. His current form is tremendous: in May he churned along the Blackpool lanes in 54 again. "Fifty-three five will win the Olympic 100 meters easy," he says, "and I'll be at 53.5." Then, lest his neighbors think him guilty of the Scots' sin of cockiness, he adds: "At least I think I will."
July 19, 1964
The 100 meters is the most glamorous of the Olympic swimming events, and it has long been the private property of the United States, Australia and Japan. Since the Games began, in 1896, only three 100-meter gold medals have eluded those countries. Since World War II only three bronze medals in the event have gone elsewhere. The sheer, shining novelty of a Scots lad fighting for room at the top has made McGregor a British celebrity.
Bobby receives an astonishing amount of mail, much of it from adoring teenage girls. Not long ago a man groping for words of high tribute introduced Bobby to a school audience as "someone as well known as George, Paul, Ringo and John." The occasion was the annual prize-giving day of his old school, Comely Park Primary in Falkirk, an iron and coal town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. After an enthusiastic rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by the school's percussion band and a recitation of a Scots nursery rhyme, Voodoo for Miss Maverick, by a small girl with a white ribbon in her hair, Bobby stepped shyly forward to present the swimming prizes. When he handed a cup to the champion girl swimmer she in turn presented a fishing line to him. Everybody in Falkirk knows that Bobby would rather fish than swim. "All the best for Tokyo," Headmaster Arthur Doyle said to Bobby at tea later. Teachers and guests applauded vigorously, and Bobby looked down and away, very embarrassed.
Robert Bilsland McGregor made his first hesitant splash in the swimming world when he was 9. His father, David, an Olympic water poloist for Britain in 1936, had become manager of the Falkirk Baths. Bobby wanted to fish in a local canal. But he could not swim, and his father said he would have to learn before he could go fishing alone. "He didn't want to learn how to swim before that," says McGregor. "He started with the breaststroke, and once I had him swimming the crawl I realized that he had great ability and potential."
A natural athlete, Bobby played a wicked center half in school soccer and hit a better-than-average golf shot. "He had that rhythm about him," says his father, "and the eye. More than that, he always liked to win. There was none of this being a good loser and that sort of nonsense."
Not until he was 14 did Bobby begin racing, and then only in minor events. A year later, in 1959, "he became sort of interested," as his father puts it. That year he won his first important championship, the West Scotland junior 100-yard freestyle title.
It was in 1962 that Bobby first joined the British national team. He celebrated by defeating the German ace Frank Wiegand at 100 meters. Shortly thereafter he beat Germany's Hans-Joachim Klein, the present world 200-meter record holder, at 110 yards, and in the European championships at Leipzig his leg of the 400-meter relay was the fastest of all the 32 competitors.
Last year saw him reach the top. This year he has confirmed his extraordinary talent. Bobby is an inch over 6 feet tall and weighs 170 pounds. If a scientist could design a human being to swim the sprints superbly, he would produce a Bobby McGregor. His power is concentrated in his arms and shoulders and deep chest, where it counts, while his legs are long and thin.
"His style," says David McGregor, "is perfection. I have yet to meet anybody who can criticize Bobby's stroke." He travels with his shoulders and chest high in the water, cutting down resistance; the effect is something like that of a planing boat. Bobby's arms have a natural low recovery. He has a bent arm pull with which he extracts the last bit of propulsion from every stroke. Only his starts and turns could be improved.
The state of Bobby's health delights the physician who gives him a checkup every other week. Says Dr. Douglas McIntyre: "There is not a fitter person in Britain, as far as heart and lungs are concerned."
Bobby has done nearly all his training in the 25-yard Falkirk pool, a plain place that reverberates every sound. Training over short courses bothers him not at all. "At first you find yourself looking up halfway down a long-course pool," he says, "but you get used to it."
On a typical day Bobby awakens at 6, breakfasts on fruit juice, fresh fruit, cereal and coffee, and at 7:30 begins the melancholy task of getting wet. The morning session usually commences with a 1,000-yard warmup—500 yards using arms only, with legs tied together, 300 yards with a normal stroke, 100 yards kicking and 100 yards backstroke. The bulk of the serious work—as serious as Bobby can manage—consists of twenty 50-yard bursts. He averages about 27 seconds for each 50, takes a 20-second rest between sprints and a two-to-three-minute break after each set of four. He also does ten 50-yard butterfly dashes to build stamina and arm strength.
In the evening Bobby typically swims another 1,000 yards warming up, but only ten 50-yard segments freestyle and five butterfly. Three times a week he does some light weight lifting. "The main thing," says his father, "is to try and prevent your swimmers becoming bored." Bobby spends the fortnight before a major meet just sharpening up with a few single lengths of the Falkirk pool each day. "If you begin to go stale," says Bobby, "you either swim through it or just rest. I usually rest."
Now that Tokyo is only three months away, Bobby is resting like mad, relaxing his way to the end of a three-week vacation from training. He spends a good deal of the time fishing for salmon and trout with plugs or a spinner ("I'm a killer, I know, but you catch more that way"). He also listens to Frank Sinatra records, tends the fire his mother likes to have blazing on the McGregor hearth summer and winter, and doodles with plans for the swimming pools he will design when he receives his architect's diploma three years from now.
This is not to say that Bobby is complacent. He knows that he will have to swim the race of his life in Tokyo to defeat the combative American star Steve Clark of Yale, who may well be capable of a 53.5-second 100 meters, and if Don Schollander swims the event Bobby will face another tough American. France's Alain Gottvalles, Germany's Klein and Australia's David Dickson may give him a race, too.
But Bobby McGregor is hardly swimming scared. "If I am going to win at Tokyo," he says, "I'd like to do so by a big margin." And then get some real rest.