To the girl swimmers from California's golden land the future always looks good, perhaps because they have sheltered themselves so from the present. They come from where the hot winds blow and the divorce rate far exceeds the national, where one person in 38 lives in a trailer, and where the misplaced children from broken homes gather. But for the girls there are only the blue pools filled season into season. Their hair is bleached by the chlorine and scorched by the sun into strands of gold tinsel, while their deep-brown bodies still carry reminders of baby fat. They will go through the consolidated high schools, and nobody will ask them out for Saturday night's dance or the drive-in movie and a burger on The Strip, because they have no time. Swimming is their life, and they are unconscious of all but its demands.
Debbie Meyer is the most famous of the breed, from the part of the golden land that is Arden Hills, Calif. Arden Hills is not like Carmel or Monterey, Big Sur or La Jolla. It huddles near the Sacramento's muddy water, cut off from the sea and San Francisco by the Coast Ranges and from the rest of the continent by the Sierra Nevada. Debbie came to Arden Hills by way of Haddonfield, N.J. when her father was transferred west by the Campbell Soup Co. In New Jersey she had been swimming only one hour a day maybe three times a week, and she couldn't even do the warmups when she started to swim for Sherm Chavoor, owner of the Arden Hills Swimming and Tennis Club. The first time she eased into the pool Sherm told her just to go ahead and do 20 laps to loosen up. After struggling through four laps she dragged her exhausted 98-pound frame out of the water.
That was only about four years ago. Now she is a few weeks short of 16, and she swims seven or eight miles every day in the heat or the wind and the rain. Every day.
But there are many of them like Debbie, so many that what was expected to be a relaxed warmup for the Olympic trials at last week's AAU National Swimming and Diving Championships in Lincoln, Neb. turned into a fierce Olympic preview. Perhaps the girls should have been pacing themselves, as the men did, but they realize that the U.S. team is going to be so strong that whoever qualifies for it at the trials August 24-28 is almost assured of a medal in many of the events two months later at Mexico City.
August 11, 1968
The girls are making the effort now because they know that their toughest competition is right here, anyway. They can't kid each other. Two of the top gold medal prospects, Debbie and Sue Pedersen, swim against each other every day for Sherm Chavoor—who also happens to be the women's Olympic coach—at the Arden Hills gopher ranch.
"Every morning when I come to the pool," Chavoor says, "the first thing I do is make a gopher check. This year so far I have found 164 gophers in the pool, and I got 11 in one day. The girls won't go near the pool unless I clean them out. Actually, the gophers aren't so bad; it's the snakes and muskrats that really bother them."
"Sherm is really horrible to those little gophers," Debbie says. "Sue and I sit on the bottom of the pool when he is getting rid of them."
"All that gore," says Sue. "Ecchh." But the pool usually does have a lot more swimmers in it than gophers. Chavoor, who has been coaching now for 21 years, has more than 180 young swimmers, and they are still coming.
"It's tough on these kids," Chavoor explains. "Swimming isn't like any other sport. In track or football you can at least talk while you're playing and watch what's going on around you. In swimming you have your face in the water, and you just follow that black line on the bottom of the pool. Sometimes I think I'd like to dump some fish in the pool and give the kids something to look at while they're working out. People think that girl swimmers, or even boys for that matter, peak when they are 16 or 17, but it isn't true at all. These kids are no different from any other athletes, and they would peak at the same time, too, around 23 or 24.
"The problem is that they have no program after age group and high school to go into. The boys can go on in college, but they still don't get the amount of pool time that they need. The whole thing is pool time. The reason most of the swimmers are from California is pool time. Everybody out here has a pool, and you can swim in it all year round. It's too bad the girls can't go on after high school when they've spent so much time at it."
Sherm leaned back in his chair slightly, and then, thinking of something he had heard from a church pulpit or more likely during his days as a high school principal, he said with finality: "But swimming is good for them—sound body, sound mind, healthy spirit."
Swimming does not, however, quite manage to exorcise ail human frailties of the teen-age girl. "The biggest problem with them is trying to keep their weight down, and Sue is the worst of all," Chavoor says, shaking his head. "She is a real imp, always hiding candy and cookies in her pocketbook or her room."
"You should see her room," Debbie laughs. "Right now it's just full of cookies and junk."
"Hey, now wait a minute." Sue says. "I bought these cookies for you, too. Well, maybe I do eat a cookie or two too many."
"I remember one time when we were down in Texas and we were on our way to the Nationals in Oklahoma." Sherm went on. "We stopped at one of those Texas-size burger-and-soda places. Well, before I knew it, all the girls had these huge sodas in front of them. I said, 'Hold it, girls, I'll eat those,' and I did. 'Course I was sick for two days."
Sue is younger than Debbie, but she has been swimming longer. She is 14 and will be 15 the day before the Olympic Games start, but she has been racing since she was 9. She has held more than 50 age-group records and took a second at the Nationals in Oklahoma when she was just 12.
By contrast, Debbie was a doddering ancient of almost 14 when she began to mature as a swimmer. It showed first in the 1966 Nationals when she took a second in the 1,500-meter freestyle and a third in the 400-meter free, but it was only last year that she began winning everything and repeatedly lowered the world records in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle. It was also in 1967 that Debbie was voted by the Soviet news agency, Tass, as the Sportswoman of the Year, the first time an American ever won.
Last week in Lincoln, Debbie Meyer and Sue Pedersen stood side by side, as they had so many times before, at the start of the 400-meter freestyle. Debbie stood cool at the back of the starting block, her close-cropped hair falling softly over her forehead and her hands at parade rest behind her back. Sue arrived late. She was off talking with some friends somewhere and had to be collected for the race by one of the officials. They swam side by side on the gun lap, and then Debbie began to edge slowly ahead. Debbie finished amid light, scattered applause in the world record time of 4:26.7, and Sue was a stroke behind her. The people who follow swimming have come to expect world records from Debbie, so much so that the announcer at the pool forgot to mention it.
The rest of the meet was not to be quite as spectacular for Debbie, but it was certainly adequate. She won the 1,500 meters handily in a meet record, setting a world 800 mark along the way, but then she did lose the 200-meter freestyle to Eadie Wetzel of Lake Forest, Ill., although they were both under the pending world record that Sue had set in the Santa Clara Invitationals four weeks ago.
Sue decided to pass up that event, because it conflicted with the 400 individual medley that she really wants to compete in at Mexico City. Instead she went out and beat the world-record holder Claudia Kolb in the medley, and she and Debbie both were on the Arden Hills team that set a new 800-meter freestyle relay record. Claudia, a competitor of acknowledged great heart, beat Sue by a long hand touch in the 200-meter individual medley. She has generally been considered to be the best all-round swimmer in the world, but it is a crown that Sue is now laying claim to, jewel by jewel.
Similarly, a palace revolt may also have begun in the men's competition, when Mark Spitz from Santa Clara was finally paired in the 200-meter freestyle against his teammate, Don Schollander, who had not lost the event in six years. Their coach, George Haines, had tried to keep his two stars from a head-to-head confrontation as long as possible, because he felt that a meeting would help neither. Certainly it did not profit Schollander, because Spitz beat him.
Ralph Hutton from Foothill Aquatic Club and Mike Burton from Arden Hills both bettered the existing world record in the 400-meter freestyle by more than a second, but even in the Spitz-Schollander duel the men's times were uniformly slow, so that it was the young ladies who kept supplying most of the excitement.
It is a matter of both quantity and quality. For the first time the women's swimming and diving team has a chance to bring home more medals than the men, and since five new events for men and six for women have been added for this year's Games, swimming now offers only three fewer gold medals than track and field.
There are U.S. girls enough, it seems, to win almost all of them. Besides the golden gopher girls, Eadie Wetzel's freestyle record clearly establishes her rank. Claudia Kolb remains a likely choice in the individual medley, and Toni Hewitt and Ellie Daniel, who finished one, two in the 200-meter butterfly, are both world threats.
And now, although the U.S. has never before taken a gold medal in the breast-stroke, 16-year-old Catie Ball appears to have a chance at two of them. Catie is a perky little freckle-faced blonde from Jacksonville, Fla. She swims with a new club called the J.E.T.S. under the coaching of George Campbell. The J.E.T.S. do not have a regulation 50-meter pool, so a lot of their time is spent in morning workouts at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Catie presently holds the world record in both the 100- and the 200-meter breaststroke, but Galina Prozumenschikova of Russia, who won the 200 meters in Tokyo, has swum the event in better time than Catie this year.
Catie swam against Prozumenschikova last year in Bremen, Germany and managed to beat her by about the length of her name.
"I was really swimming scared." says Catie. "I don't ever remember being that scared in competition before. The only other time I was nearly that worried was in the Little Olympics in 1966 when there was this girl from Uruguay swimming in the heat just before me. And she went so fast, well, I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Now, hey, girl, you can't swim that fast.' "
Catie Ball is probably the only swimmer who has any real apprehension about going to Mexico City. "Every time I go out of the country I get sick or something," she says. "It's really weird; I was in London and I had to stay in bed all day before the race, and I was behind for three lengths. I kept saying, 'Way to go, Catie, way to get sick.' But I won on the last lap."
In Mexico at the Little Olympics she had to be taken to the hospital, and at the Pan-American Games everybody was standing in puddles for the opening ceremony with it just "pouring down rain. Well, the next day you should have seen me," Catie explains, "with my glands swoll way out to here."
Apparently, Catie does not really have to leave the country at all to come down with an illness. Last February she got mononucleosis and had to stay out of the pool for two months. "It really wasn't that bad." she says. "It was just about the time the Winter Olympics started, and I watched them every day on the tube. I got a little white, fluffy French poodle about then, and guess what I named him? Go on, guess. Right. Jean-Claude. I wish I didn't now, though. Boy, what a dumb dog. He's so stupid. I really wish I hadn't named him that."
Like her California competitors, Catie has been swimming four to six hours a day six days a week since she was 8 years old. During the school year she works out both before and after classes, which does not leave her much time for clubs or other school activities "You really can't do anything," she says. "I was elected vice-president of my class this year, but don't ask me how. I tried dating, but it just doesn't work out. You don't have the time, and you get too tired. But I must really like swimming, because I can quit anytime I want to. My folks have been great; they don't push me like a lot of parents do."
Like many swimmers, the part of practice Catie dislikes the most is the morning workouts. There are times in the winter when it gets down below freezing, and the steam off the water is so thick that it is impossible even to see the other swimmers. "We spend most of the time just bumping into each other," Catie says. "You wonder why everybody goes to those practices."
It is no wonder, really. It is an Olympic year, and all these girls are too young to have even known any other Olympics. From the time they first splashed through a race, this is the one thing, the one year, they have been after. "Olympic medals are the real reward," says Debbie Meyer, "in my line of work."