Before he grows too short of breath and dim of eye every rabid, dyed-in-the-wool, red-blooded, 100% American sports fan should attend at least one large swimming meet in Northern California simply to appreciate the difference. Whereas a football game needs only a few dozen well-padded endomorphs, a Northern California swimming meet is considered a flop if it does not attract 300 or 400 competitors of both sexes and various ages. And it is really no show at all unless there are a few Olympians, a couple of world-record holders, four or five dozen teenage whizzes and a legion of grade-school hotshots on hand.
During a football game, a linebacker sitting on the bench would never think of climbing into the stands to ask his mother if she remembered to feed his pet turtle. At a swimming meet, the young competitors are constantly on the prowl. They are in the bleachers. They are three-deep at the snack bar. They are wrestling on their quilts and bedrolls when they are supposed to be resting up for the next event. There are so many sun-darkened bodies milling around the pool deck, so many jerseys and towels scattered about, that a big swim meet does not resemble a sports event as much as washday on the banks of the Ganges.
Consider, as an example, the 16th Annual Swimming Relays, held on the 22nd and 23rd of June in the Chabot College Pool at 25555 Hesperian Boulevard in Hayward, Calif. under the sanction of the Pacific Association of the Amateur Athletic Union and under the sponsorship of the Beaver swimming team of San Leandro. Around 3 p.m. on the 23rd, amid enterprises of great pith and moment, three small girls, with the mustard of their last hot dogs still showing on their faces, were running along the side of the pool. As they ran they shouted, "Where's Carol? Have you seen Carol? She's anchor on our relay." (It is a basic rule of swimming that the relay team that hopes to win together should stay together.) Meanwhile the mother of a swimmer (she was obviously a mother, for she had a stopwatch hanging from her neck like a dowager's lavaliere) rushed up to her husband.
"Have you seen Charles?" she screamed.
July 21, 1968
"Charles who?" her husband asked.
"Charles, our son, you idiot," she exclaimed. "His butterfly is coming up."
At the far end of the pool, a 12-year-old stood erect, holding two 9-year-olds apart. "You are not going to fight anymore," he said, "until you stop hitting each other directly in the mouth."
While these and other small dramas were being enacted, the public-address announcer tried to keep everyone abreast of what was going on in the pool. When he came to the results of event No. 14, the men's 400-meter freestyle (sponsored by Pipers Family Restaurant, 951 Mac-Arthur Boulevard, San Leandro) he bore down a little, speaking in a voice that could sometimes be heard above the hubbub. "First place," he said, "Mark Spitz of the Santa Clara Swim Club. The time: four minutes, seven and seven-tenths seconds. A new world and American record."
On hearing that Spitz (see cover) had set a world record, two little San Leandro Beavers actually put down the playing cards they held in a game of crazy eights. "Congratulations, you old bum," one little Beaver shouted. The other little Beaver shrugged. "I already have his autograph," he said.
Spitz's record was reported in London, Paris, Moscow, Durban, Sydney and Tokyo, but not in the San Francisco Chronicle across the bay. The failure of San Francisco to celebrate the feat may seem odd, but it is understandable. In the Bay Area the breaking of records by local swimmers—particularly by the bright and constant stars of Santa Clara—has become as commonplace as jumping off bridges. In the past two seasons each time someone else broke the 400-meter record Spitz rebroke it, restoring it to Northern California. Even if the Chronicle assigned half a dozen men exclusively to swimming, it is doubtful if they could keep up with all the thrashing that will occur during this pre-Olympic summer.
To judge by the doings at the Chabot College Pool, some readers may feel that swimming is heading in the wrong direction, catering too much to the sprites, while the exploits of champions pass almost unnoticed. Weighed against this fault, however, is the fact that the real strength of the sport derives from the clamorous mob of kids who are constantly moving up through the age-group program. No other sport offers such a trusty ladder to the top.
Anyone who still feels swimming is headed wrong should blame George Haines, the 44-year-old coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club. Why single out poor George? Because, if you are going to throw a brickbat, you might as well pick an easy mark, and these days Haines is hard to miss. Anywhere you look, from the bottom rung of the swimming ladder to the top, George is there. Since he is the president of the Pacific Association of the AAU, he is, in effect, the loving godparent of the biggest, noisiest and most competent segment of the age-group swimming mob. Since he is the coach of the Men's Olympic Swimming Team, he is busier than usual this season getting some 60 prospects—men and women—ready for the Olympic trials in late August. Since he is also the coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club and of the Santa Clara High School swimming team, he is training more than 300 grade-school, high-school and collegiate swimmers who are seeking some glory beyond the 1968 Olympics.
Out of the 28 gold medals that American swimmers brought home from the Tokyo Olympics, 13 were won by Santa Clara men and women. There are any number of statistics of this sort that prove George Haines is a genius. His girl swimmers have won 21 of the last 23 indoor and outdoor national championships. Last season his 9-and 10-year-old swimmers ate more Popsicles than any other 10-and-under class. The weightiest fact in Haines's favor is that at Santa Clara the champions seem to come on and on. Chris von Saltza, the big winner at the 1960 Games, was a Santa Clara girl. Don Schollander is a Santa Clara man. And now here comes Mark Spitz who, at 18, has only been out of the age-group incubator for two years, but holds world records in the 100-and 200-meter and 110-yard butterfly as well as the 400-meter freestyle. If the other 49 states and the rest of California should decide to pass up the Olympics, Haines could put together a team from his Santa Clara Swim Club that would hold off the rest of the world.
George Haines is an authority on starting young and at the bottom, having begun that way himself in the Depression when the lowest rung of the swimming ladder was buried six inches in mud. It would be dishonest to describe George's competitive career as meteoric. It would be stretching the truth to say he forged ahead steadily. "Spotty" is the kindest word. George was born and raised in the northeast quarter of Indiana, in the town of Huntington, which is situated halfway between Middletown and Obscurity. He started swimming at the Huntington YMCA and emotionally has never changed his affiliation. At institutions of higher swimming, such as Michigan, Ohio State and Yale, the sport had prescribed regimens back in the 1930s, but for a Y swimmer like Haines, diversity was more the order of the day. For instance, he swam on the Huntington Y's 1,000-pound relay team, which was composed of 10 stalwarts who each swam 100 yards and whose total weight could not exceed 1,000 pounds.
Back in those antic years George often mingled with the giants of the sport, tasting victory now and again. After he had staggered through one 1,500-meter race, the late Matt Mann, at that time the Michigan coach and High Priest of Swimming and a man known for his relentless honesty, said, "Haines, my boy, your stroke is beautiful, but you stay in one spot too long." At another meet Adolph Kiefer, the lord and master of the backstroke, borrowed George's bottle of hair oil. George once won a one-mile lake swim in Ohio against a field including Jimmy McLane, the first of America's swimming prodigies. "I also won a national junior half-mile," George relates, "but don't ask me when or where—in Lexington, Kentucky, I think."
Before World War II interrupted his career George had established himself as the king of Indiana's annual Fourth of July, three-mile White River swim. The White River rises, for no apparent reason, near Indianapolis and serves no apparent purpose other than to start large quantities of good Indiana soil moving down to New Orleans. On his first try in the White River swim, George finished in the ruck. The next year, in a river rampaging after heavy rain, he finished second, covering the rollicking three miles downstream in an astonishing 36 minutes. (The winner, Huntington teammate Jerry Rudig, took only 33 minutes and doubtless could have reached New Orleans the next afternoon if he had cared to.) On his third try, during a drought that slowed the river, George won the three-mile swim in one hour and a quarter, spending much of that time crawling hand over hand across bars too shallow for swimming. "Not sandbars," George says. "The White River had mud bars. Bars of thick mud. Carp-type mud. Real mud."
If George Haines has anything special working for him this year, it is that he is a coach and a half: in his own right a modern master of technique and, in spirit, an extension of Glenn Hummer, the self-sacrificing man who coached him at the Huntington YMCA and taught him the value of the human touch. Summing up the merits of his old coach, George says, "Glenn Hummer was the kind of man who would cross a river of burning oil if one of his kids was in trouble. He was also the kind who, if you said a wrong word, would warn you once and the next time slap you across the face. I still have his hand print on my fanny." (Just why Hummer chose to whack Haines on a lower cheek rather than an upper is not clear. Let us leave it that way.)
When Haines first got in the swim Hummer used to cart his team to meets in a Model-T truck. They always put up at "The Cloverleaf Motel"—which is to say they camped out on the greensward. When it rained hard they moved under the overhang of the nearest filling station. Although Hummer's vehicles got better in time, his driving did not. One slick winter day, at the wheel of a secondhand bus, Hummer missed the T in a road, went through a fence and, without so much as a snort of dismay or a downshift, did a smart turn in a cornfield, emerged through the hole he had just made in the fence and proceeded in his intended direction. "Glenn Hummer is the only man I know," George insists, "who could leave Terre Haute for Indianapolis and end up in Lafayette, going in the opposite direction. When we drove at night I would sit beside him and keep nudging him. 'I've only got one eye closed,' Hummer would tell me. In 1961, or maybe '62, when I took a Santa Clara team back to the waterworks pool in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, the moment I drove in the place I knew where I was. I drove right past the pool and up a hill, and there, camping in a tent in the same spot, was Glenn Hummer and six or seven of his kids." (For those who feel history, however disjointed, should be brought up to date, Glenn Hummer is still at it, doing his best to keep his vehicles on the road and producing swimmers who are far better than Haines. His Huntington team won the national YMCA championship this year.)
After serving in the war as a coast guardsman, Haines went to Kalamazoo College in Michigan; he understood that the school planned to build a pool and bring in Glenn Hummer as coach. But the pool was never built and Hummer never came, so there was George Haines, the king of the White River, high and dry in Kalamazoo. After two years Haines moved to San Jose State. While there, he discovered Santa Clara, a burgeoning community where the prune-plum orchards were fast giving way to subdivisions. When Haines signed on as a physical-education instructor and swimming coach at Santa Clara High, a three-pool complex was in the works. The next year Haines marshaled the first of his 17 high-school teams and the first of his 17 Santa Clara Swim Club teams, both of which had a do-or-die spirit but not much else.
In a far cry from the old tenting days under Hummer, Haines's Santa Clara swimmers now sleep in motels and this summer they will probably fly to important meets by chartered jet. "The swimmers today sleep better and eat better than we did," Haines admits, "but they also work much harder and longer, and they swim much faster." Haines runs a mass-production operation at a fast pace, but his singular success is due equally to the fact that he still has the old individual approach ingrained in him, the gospel according to Saint Hummer. Don Schollander, the finest product of this intense age of work and more work, bears this out. "Haines knows as much about training and mechanics as anyone," Schollander says, "but he is truly great because he knows each swimmer. He can give himself to many people and in different ways. Whenever he says I can do a job, I know I can."
The Haines machine runs well because of the faith existing between coach and swimmers and between coach and all manner of parents. The enthusiasm at Santa Clara is of a durable sort and the best proof of this is the unfinished case of John McCrary. If explored fully it could probably be strung out for a number of weeks on television. John McCrary was a member of Haines's first club team 17 years ago. How can we put it nicely? McCrary was slow in coming along. He never swam a stroke until he was 2. He never went off the high board until he was 2½ and then only because his older brother did. He did not swim a race for Haines until he was 3. Although he never won much against the 5-and 6-year-olds in his class, he was always very loyal to Haines. "John McCrary was bugging me when he was 3 years old," Haines says, "and he is still bugging me. The first year, he would follow me so closely, whenever I turned around I'd stumble over him. I used to throw him into the middle of the pool to get him out of the way."
At the age of 4 John McCrary had a stroke of bad luck. He fell 10 feet from the butt end of the high board and landed flat on concrete. When Haines took the bleeding boy to the hospital the doctor said, "This child is not even in shock." Following such a calamity, there are parents who would doubt the worth of the cause but, as all swimming parents must, Mr. and Mrs. John McCrary Sr. had faith, although neither of them is what you would call an extremist. For example, during a meet Mrs. McCrary would never blow a bugle in the stands, as one mother did to notify her daughter resting in a nearby house that it was time to come and loosen up. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. McCrary has ever released carrier pigeons in the stands, as one parent did to get the results to relatives at a distance. "We simply felt that swimming would give John some direction," Mrs. McCrary says with a light, wild laugh that suggests that she is still not sure what the direction is.
There is not time here to explain how John McCrary happened to set fire to the attic of his home or to delve into the reasons why at one meet he rolled trash cans along the pool deck, troubling the officials. The point is, he swam on, never spectacularly, but earning some reward. Two years ago he was captain of the Menlo College team, the first swimmer ever to have an athletic scholarship there. The next year at the University of Wisconsin he hung up new school records in the 500-, the 1,000-and the 1,650-yard events despite the fact that early in the season, while eating his way through a thick cross-section of beef, he cut himself with a steak knife. At the NCAA championships at Dartmouth, he was plagued by a painful elbow and did only fair time in the 200-yard freestyle. Call it a slipup or what you will, the doctors who had examined him before he left Wisconsin forgot to tell him he had a broken arm. "John says he hurt his arm when he was hurrying down a corridor and ran into a wall," his mother reports, "but we are not inclined to believe that. We think he was roughhousing with his roommate, a large, strong boy."
And in what hospital is John McCrary now? He is now in the Santa Clara pool, still swimming hard for George Haines. "If the swimmers get nothing else from Santa Clara," Mrs. McCrary says, "the association with George Haines is probably enough."