Five years ago, in the middle of a carefree day, 10-year-old Bradford McKean of Pittsburgh announced to his parents that he had entered the three-quarter-mile cross-country run for sixth-graders at Shady Side Academy.
"Has it occurred to you," his father, Edgar McKean, asked, "that you do not even know how to pace yourself?"
"Yes," Brad McKean answered, "but some of the others do, so I will get ahead of them and try to stay there."
Using this strategy, Brad McKean won, defeating what his mother now describes as "a great, disorganized horde of boys." In the five years since his victory in the three-quarter-mile run, McKean has tilted at a variety of windmills, gathering a few scars and a trunkful of trophies. At 12 he was a Little League pitching standout; at 13, a two-way footballer and a basketball high-scorer. As a high school freshman last year he was a first-quintile scholar (with a low C in math). This year he is vice-president of his class and, although carrying quite an athletic load, he is still jumping nicely through the academic hoop, dragging his math behind him.
May 15, 1966
Ordinarily a promising high school student-athlete like McKean does not start hearing from college alumni and coaches until his junior or senior year. In McKean's case, the college sirens have not been able to contain themselves. If you want to know the admission requirements of the U.S. Naval Academy or the opportunities at the University of Michigan or what the future holds for Yale men, ask Brad McKean, for he has been getting lots of letters and free literature on such matters since the middle of his freshman year. Versatile scholar that he is, McKean is being applied for by the colleges this early in his career because he is, first and foremost, a competitive swimmer.
Understandably, a college basketball coach does not get interested in a growing high schooler until the lad is tall enough to bash his head on the lintel of a door. Similarly, the football hawks withhold judgment until a prospect has packed on most of his battle weight. A baseball scout, naturally enough, cannot afford to get excited about a Little Leaguer who plays only six innings on shortened base paths. Indeed, there are only two large sporting breeds today—Thoroughbred horses and age-group swimmers—that are allowed to work hard enough to show their class while they are still young and tender. Since there is no intercollegiate horse racing—and, for that matter, no horse able to clear the 1.6 academic barrier set up for collegians—it is the age-group swimmer who gets first call from the colleges.
Last year Swimmer McKean set 13 national records in the 13-to-14 age group. In the four months since he turned 15, he has been swimming faster than anyone his age has before. He has already clocked well enough in three or four events to score against any pack of collegians. At 15, McKean is a spectacular, but not a perfect, swimming specimen. His technique in the breaststroke, like his performance in math class, still needs improvement. His backstroke is satisfactory; his crawl stroke and butterfly are beautiful to watch. In the crawl McKean seems to cheat his way through the water, creating little furor while traveling fast. When he swims 100 yards in what looks like 51 seconds, by the cold hand of the stopwatch he actually does under 49.
Although McKean has only recently become a topic of general conversation around Pittsburgh, college coaches everywhere have been aware of him for quite a while. He made his first big splash in age-group swimming about three years ago, and his progress since has been dutifully noted by Swimming World, the aquatic monthly that serves, among other things, as talent scout for all the important institutions of higher swimming. At this very moment, while Pittsburghers are concentrating on the Pirates at Forbes Field, here and there around the country swimming coaches are down on their knees giving thanks that Pittsburgher Brad McKean has passed up baseball this spring to concentrate on swimming.
Last year, as a freshman at Shady Side, McKean won his varsity swimming letter and was rated an All-American in two events—accomplishments that are unusual, considering that Shady Side does not have a swimming coach, a swimming team or a swimming pool. Because he attends a private school, McKean is ineligible for local high school competition. He won his All-American rating and varsity letter by traveling to Lawrenceville, N.J., where he competed in the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships as the sole member of a team that does not exist.
There are currently more than half a million age-group swimmers in the U.S. If McKean lived in one of the big swimming strongholds, such as Greater Los Angeles, the San Francisco area or the Florida Gold Coast, his preeminence would be easy to explain—if you build a big enough pyramid out of the vibrant, willing bodies of inexhaustible youth you are bound to get quality at the top. As a Pittsburgher, McKean is an enigma, an exotic product of an industrial, technological city that hammers out swimming champions as often as it does laureate poets.
McKean's competitive career started eight years ago as a casual summertime affair at a local country club. In the minds of the McKean parents, Suzanne and Edgar, a 25-yard race at the Pittsburgh Field Club was something 7-year-old Brad would go for naturally, like playing ball or brawling or eating and sleeping. Brad couldn't have agreed with them less. Competing only because his older brother Ted did, in his first race Brad mounted the starting block weeping and placed second. The next summer, while visiting in Las Cruces, N. Mex., the reluctant duckling won a swimming double, beating the best 8-year-old country-clubbers of Las Cruces in an across-the-pool sprint (12½ yards), and then coming back to take the length-of-the-pool swim (25 yards). Within two years McKean was the top blue-ribbon winner on the Pittsburgh country-club circuit and was looking around, naturally enough, for bigger dragons.
In the country-club meets there were boys who also swam in the AAU age-group competitions. McKean usually beat any of them his age, but he was in awe of the boys because they spoke the exciting jargon of AAU-land. They wore sweat suits and used alien words like "split," "flip turn" and "psyching." Occasionally they psyched McKean. When he was trying to stoke himself up emotionally before a grueling 25-yard race, an AAUer would casually mention that 25 yards was short, 400 yards would be more like it, or he would cluck sympathetically about how the sun could sap a man's energy. (To avoid being sun-sapped before one race, McKean hid so deep in the gloom under the stands that he did not hear the first call to the blocks.)
In 1963 a family friend, Charles Griffith, showed McKean how to get an AAU card and sent him on his way with a prophetic word. "Brad," he said, "you are now the lonely, unattached unknown in lane 6 that everyone worries about." At McKean's first AAU race—a 50-meter freestyle at Greensburg, Pa. that August—the officials did toss him into lane 6 of a heat as an untried bit of unattached riffraff. A moment later a man jabbing a stopwatch in the stands bellowed in Mrs. McKean's ear, "Who was that boy swimming in lane 6?"
"That's my child," said Mrs. McKean.
"Well, lady," the stopwatcher replied, "he just did 28.7."
Mrs. McKean was quite flattered that a stranger should take such interest. Furthermore, she thought it very kind of the officials to give a newcomer like Brad a center lane in the finals, which he won. Since Mrs. McKean seemed to be wandering around at the meet not quite comprehending the intricacy of the whole affair (and not even carrying a stopwatch), Mrs. Frank Slamar, an experienced swimming mother, asked politely, "Is this your first age-group meet?"
"Yes," Mrs. McKean replied.
"Let me warn you," Mrs. Slamar said. "Your life will never be the same again."
Before the few remaining weeks of that summer were done, all the McKeans realized they had entered a different world. Spurred on by his first win, Brad McKean found another meet in a 55-yard pool in New Kensington, Pa. According to the fact sheet for the meet, warmup period began at 8 a.m., so the McKeans rose with the sun in order to get there on time. When they arrived promptly at 8 on a cool September morning, the pool was empty. Its still, slick water stretched away for what looked like a quarter of a mile to the far end half hidden in mist. "If that is 55 yards," McKean said, aghast, "I am not swimming."
Only one other car was on hand at that early hour, a station wagon with Delaware plates. The McKeans watched with fascination as the Delawareans unloaded thermoses and other items of picnickery, along with some bedding and a full innerspring mattress. A small boy, wearing a sweat suit and double-wrapped in towels, straightway got on the mattress and lay there motionless, as if near death.
"We had brought Brad to the meet in street clothes with nothing but swim trunks," Mrs. McKean relates. "That Delaware boy won the mile swim. We were very impressed."
Despite his lack of bedding, McKean won the 110-yard freestyle for 11- and 12-year-olds. In the finals of the event, to the horror of the experts clocking him, he did the first 55 yards in 29 seconds, then, after dislodging a foot that he caught in the gutter while attempting a flip turn, he staggered home in 38 seconds. While this was an enthusiastic way to swim, it was very unscientific, a condition that Mrs. Arthur (Vee) Toner Jr., a knowledgeable and incurable all-sports addict and Olympic Committeewoman, was not about to tolerate. For several years she had been telling the McKeans that Brad was an exceptional swimming gem who deserved polishing. At New Kensington, Mrs. Toner laid down the law: Brad McKean should work immediately under someone like Coach Allan Rose at the Pittsburgh YMHA or give up the business.
Neither Brad nor his parents doubted that she was right. Brad had been taught the fundamentals of the crawl and breast-stroke reasonably well at the Pittsburgh Field Club, but everything else had come by observation, trial and error. His flip turn, largely self-taught, was a disaster. Instead of rolling with his leading arm, he dropped the opposite shoulder and brought his head—Lord knows how—under the arm. The total effect was that of an orangutan tucking itself into a prenatal ball, then, moments later, untucking. "Before Brad went to YMHA," Mrs. McKean recalls with a slight shudder, "swimming the backstroke he looked like two people paddling a canoe."
The present working combination of Brad McKean and YMHA Coach Al Rose epitomizes a basic truth of competitive swimming: if the swimmer is willing and the coach able, miracles are possible in any body of water, even in Pittsburgh's archaic YMHA pool. Al Rose is a soft-voiced young man with a nice eye for the subtleties of stroke and a capacity for combining zeal with patience. His pool has a good deal less to offer. It is a shallow, narrow 25-yard chlorine pit of the late Weissmuller period. In the winter the heating ducts suspended from the ceiling occasionally gasp and sigh, as if despairing at the impossible task of drying out an atmosphere as constantly dank as a Central American swamp. A year or so ago a weight lifter on the floor above dropped his barbell, and 35 square feet of ceiling fell into the pool. But the Y water is used hard, and that is the best criterion for judging the worth of any pool.
Rose made believers of the McKeans, though they are by no means monotheistic about swimming. There are still other minor recreational gods around the McKean hearth, notably, Art, Music, Light Conversation and Serious Golf. The McKeans try to keep swimming in perspective, and this is not easy, for Brad McKean is now a marked man, a performer from whom many people perhaps expect too much. Already friends and strangers are asking the McKean parents if Brad is going to the Olympics in Mexico, as if the 1968 Games were some kind of tour arranged by the local Kiwanis Club. This sort of Olympic predestination is burden enough for a 15-year-old competitor still trying to make his way. In addition, McKean now swims with the ghost of Olympic Champion Don Schollander for a rival. Since Olympian Schollander is still very alive and still kicking a body length or more in front of McKean, this is a peculiar situation that bears explaining.
At the start of his career McKean was lucky to get fourth-paragraph mention in newspaper accounts of swimming meets. But he soon became such a consistent winner that after a couple of years of it the newspapers were almost stifling a yawn whenever they headlined a story THREE MORE MARKS FOR MCKEAN. Then a year and a half ago a bright Shady Side Academy boy named Al Banes came up with an angle to enliven the monotony of McKean's winning. In the Shady Side News AI Banes reported that, in setting a district age-group record in the 100-yard freestyle, McKean had come within .6 second of the national record held by Don Schollander. With that, the imp was out of the box. The working press, in Pittsburgh and afar, was soon comparing each new record by McKean with what Schollander had done at the same age.
In some accounts it almost seemed that Schollander was in the pool racing against McKean. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News reported excitedly, "The western Pennsylvania swimmer, undaunted by Don Schollander's Olympic form, broke the four-gold-medal winner's age-group record in the 100-yard freestyle with a 50.0." The Charlotte (N.C.) News saw Brad McKean as a new giant on the earth. Noting that McKean was also an undefeated pitcher (which he was not) and in the top 1% of his class (where he has never been), the News declared, "It is hard to believe a 14-year-old superman exists, but if anyone qualifies, it should be Brad McKean."
By contrast, the Evansville (Ind.) Press saw 14-year-old McKean not as a giant, but as a plucky tot challenging a god on Olympus. Although at the time McKean was nearly 5 feet 11 inches tall and built solidly enough to walk through a closed door, the Press reported, "Little Brad McKean of Pittsburgh, the tyke who set the swimming world aglow last week by shattering some of Don Schollander's old age-group records, awoke the folks who braved alternating rain and heat at Hartke Pool Saturday with two more sizzling national marks."
When his age-group times are compared with Schollander's in his presence, McKean says simply, "If you want a real comparison, compare the times Schollander is swimming now with the times I am swimming now." McKean has been at the game long enough to know that today's records are tomorrow's mediocrity. In the clutter of his possessions there is one press clipping that will not let him forget it. From an Ohio paper, it tells of a 13-year-old, 6-foot 1-inch Cincinnati high school freshman, Steve Carey (an A student), who set a national age-group record of 22.7 seconds for 50 yards. By way of adding luster to Carey's feat, the report goes on to say that the record was formerly held by the Pittsburgh whiz, Brad McKean.
"I'll have to worry about Carey if I ever swim against him," McKean says. Thus, carrying the ghosts of all rivals as lightly as possible, at age 15 Brad McKean swims on, still in pursuit and already pursued.