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How they chose the best team of all time

Sept. 14, 1964
Sept. 14, 1964

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Sept. 14, 1964

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How they chose the best team of all time

There were surprises: some favorites lost, other swimmers unexpectedly won. But when the Olympic trials were over, it was evident that the U.S. had a superteam, even if problems did lie ahead for the divers

By Herman Weiskopf

Put an American swimmer in a bathtub and he will set a record of some sort. For six days, ending last Thursday, 380 of this country's best swimmers thrashed around in something considerably larger than a bathtub—the sprawling million-gallon pool in Astoria, Queens, just a short crawl across the East River from Manhattan. When the last splash had died away, the results were remarkable, even for these record-soaked athletes. Setting five world marks, they succeeded in whittling their numbers down to a hard core of men and women who now comprise the finest swimming learn ever assembled. The divers, selected at the same meet, are considered equally good. Even the winning El Segundo, Calif. water polo team promises to be the best the U.S. has sent to the Olympics in years.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1964 issue Original Layout

For those close to the sport there were a number of surprises. While Donna de Varona (SI, April 16, 1962), Marilyn Ramenofsky and Sharon Stouder won their specialties as expected, Ted Stickles and Carolyn House failed to make the Olympic team, and Don Schollander (SI, Aug. 10), Sharon Finneran and Carl Robie settled for runner-up spots. But rather than portents of disasters to come, the failures and near failures were only added proof of the competitiveness of the swimmers. Although it is certain that many gold medals will be won by the U.S. in Tokyo, there is no assurance the winners of last week will get them. They could lose to their teammates.

Two of the most impressive performances, probably because they were unexpected, belonged to Breaststroker Chet Jastremski and Roy Saari. Jastremski is 23 and currently the only student in the Indiana University graduate school working for an M.D. and LL.D. at the same time. Having retired from swimming to better cope with these labors, he got that old feeling only a few months ago and somehow found time for serious training. At Astoria he won the 200 meters and in the process cut the world record by 1.4 to 2:28.2.

Saari's accomplishments were even more spectacular. A 19-year-old junior at the University of Southern California, he became the Roger Bannister of the metric mile in water by covering the distance in less than 17 minutes (16:58.7). Saari (prounced sorry) also qualified for two other Olympic assignments by finishing first in the 400-meter freestyle (he overtook Schollander in the final 30 meters) and placing second in the 400-meter individual medley. All of Saari's performances might have been predictable except that he was playing water polo even after the swimming began, and the training is different for the two sports.

Playing is not the exact word for what Saari was doing with the El Segundo water polo team. Whipping up and down the pool with commanding power, he was easily the outstanding performer on his team in the five-day tournament and made the Olympics as a water poloist. Since nobody is permitted on both the swimming and water polo teams, Saari will represent the U.S. as a swimmer. A Saari will be on the polo team, though, and in fact two more will go to Tokyo. Roy's father, Urho, coach of the winning El Segundo team, automatically qualifies as coach of the Olympic squad. And Roy's 16-year-old brother Bob plays for El Segundo.

With the trials over, Roy Saari felt more relaxed than he had in months of pressured swimming. Not only had he endured the dual assignment, but this summer he took on an eight-hour-a-day job as a lifeguard. "I had nightmares about it all," he said. "But I needed the money for a car and dates."

Saari's victories at 400 and 1,500 meters were markedly different from the first one of his career, at age 5. "It was a 6-and-under race, a 25-yard freestyle," he recalls. "There was only one other entry and he scratched. I was very nervous when I got up on the blocks. Halfway down the pool I got tangled up in the lane lines and a guard had to jump in and get me. I didn't finish the race but they gave me the medal anyway."

As good as the swimmers are, they have never approached the almost complete dominance of their sport that the divers enjoy. In the nine Olympics since World War I, American men have won 17 of 18 possible gold medals in diving, U.S. women 15 of 18. "We're so good it's fantastic," Princeton Coach Bob Clot-worthy said at the trials. "If we sent over our 25 best divers to the Games they'd probably all finish in the lop 35 of the world." The same can be said for the women. Unfortunately, one country can enter a maximum of six men and six women in the Olympic springboard and platform diving competition. Since some divers make the team in both events, the number who actually get to the Games is further reduced.

This was brought home especially hard to Rick Gilbert and Bernie Wrightson, who were among the favorites to make the U.S. team but, by the margin of a splashy plop and a bent toe, did not. Bob Webster, gold medalist off the 10-meter board at Rome, is one who did. So did Jeanne Collier and Ken Sitzberger. Stern precisionists who combine gymnastic ability with a flowing sense of grace, they all should do as well as their predecessors in the Games. The ominous fact is, however, that they may very well not, and the reason does not stem from sharpened competition from abroad or from any lessening of their own skills. U.S. diving officials have become increasingly concerned over the judging at international meets, and they wonder openly whether the U.S. will not, after some close calls, finally be victimized.

Their fears began at Helsinki in 1952. There, as British Diving Expert Pat Besford wrote, a Russian woman judge "was always half a mark higher for her own competitors, and half a mark down for their most dangerous rivals." The International Swimming Federation (FINA) ignored the complaint.

At Melbourne in 1956 the judging was so bad that fans booed loud and long. "A Russian woman and a Hungarian judge were in collusion," says Clotworthy. who won the gold medal in the springboard event that year. "It was the worst judging I've ever seen."

Their complaints were ignored.

"That same Russian woman who was judging in Helsinki was a judge in Rome," said Dr. Sammy Lee, U.S. winner of gold medals in high diving in 1948 and 1952. "She was favoring her people over the others again."

This time something was done. "After the first four dives, Phil Moriarity [coach of the U.S. men divers] and I officially protested," said Dr. Lee, drawing himself up to his full 5 feet 1¾ inches. "No one wanted to believe us and we said we would apologize if we were wrong. Her scores were checked and she was removed from the judging immediately."

But the woman may be back. She is still listed by FINA as an approved official. So will some American judges who, according to Dr. Lee, err in the opposite direction. "Our judges," he says, "try to be like Uncle Sam—help others. And like all Olympic judges they try to stick to the middle. They won't score a bad dive as low as it should be nor a good dive as high as it should be. So it is hard for a good diver to pull away from a bad one and if he has one really bad dive he's liable to lose."

These problems may become aggravated because of the U.S.'s long domination of the sport. As Hobie Billingsley, the Indiana diving coach, says, "It's human nature to root for the underdog, so when anyone good comes along to challenge our divers they jump on him and yell their heads off. They want to see someone besides an American get that gold medal. To win in Tokyo we will have to be supreme."

Well, supreme it will be, despite the built-in alibis. The divers are saying nothing. They are getting ready.

FOUR PHOTOSROY SAARI, THE POWERFUL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JUNIOR SHOWN HERE SURGING THROUGH THE WATER, WAS THE STAR OF THE OLYMPIC TRIALS. WINNER IN TWO EVENTS, SECOND IN ANOTHER, HE ALSO LED HIS WATER POLO TEAM TO AN OLYMPIC BERTH