When it was all over and the last of the official Olympic sweat shirts had been issued, Coach George Haines stood there and tried to look worried, which was hard to do, and thoughtfully objective, which was impossible. For the first time in days he slipped into the faintest trace of a smile. "No predictions," he said. Haines says that a lot, so nobody wrote it down. "We will just have to wait and see what happens in Mexico." There was an appreciative hoo-ha all around.
Haines, as everyone knows, is one of two or three top coaches around the country who operate secret laboratories where they mold and stamp out perfect swimmers to order. The swimmers all radiate. They glow in the dark. Little beams of light dance from their teeth. They all look as though they had rushed right over from Central Casting, where they were filed under Wholesome. Each time that Haines nods serenely and orders them into a pool, they break world records. There is something vaguely disturbing about such power. "I think," said one poolside observer last week, "those kids are all plastic." In a way it is a handicap.
And lest anyone say that all U.S. Olympic coaches should have such handicaps, there was plenty of reason for concern. Most importantly, what do Haines, who coaches the boys, and Sherman Chavoor, who coaches the girls, do for an encore?
In a couple of weeks of thrashing around in California, a few hundred boy swimmers and girl swimmers went into various pools and 73 came out as Olympians. The statistics are unsettling: the girls broke seven world records in the process of filling out a squad of 35. Debbie Meyer set three world freestyle records—at 200, 400 and 800 meters. Claudia Kolb smashed two world individual medley marks at 200 and 400 meters, and Catie Ball set new world records in the 100-and 200-meter breaststroke. In the 400-meter freestyle, the first three finishers broke the world record.
September 15, 1968
Then Chavoor filed the girls away. They switched pools—from Los Angeles to Long Beach—and Haines brought out the boys. Seven more world records were broken and another was tied. Now the two coaches face the prospect of moving this perfect team to Mexico—where the water is said to be slow and the germs are known to be fast—and bringing back more medals than any coach should honestly hope to get. Olympic swimming has added 11 new events since 1964, and swimming and diving now account for 33 gold medals, only three short of the number allotted to track and field and, in effect, putting those sports on parity. The opportunity for extravagant success is there, but Coaches Haines and Chavoor face hard days. There is a danger of overconfidence that could climb higher than the altitude.
All last week, for example, each time Mark Spitz emerged dripping from the water after winning something or other, he was asked about his plan to win five gold medals in Mexico. By the end of the competition the number had grown to six. Spitz is lean and handsome, with green eyes nicely balanced by chlorine pink, which creates a striking effect. But he is only 18 years old, and by the end of the week, under such a concentrated attack of adulation, he had begun thoughtfully to listen to all of this, which could be disastrous. "I don't want to seem hungry, but I want to win everything I swim in," he said, coolly. "I don't want to go down there and lose any events."
The rest of the team glowed with similar well-being. Everyone had assembled for the trials in a palace called the Belmont Plaza Olympic Swimming Pool, which Long Beach Publicist Merv Harris terms the Taj Mahal of pools only out of civic modesty. There were five days of heats and five evenings of hysteria. First came the 100-meter butterfly, a bouncy event that was swum so fast that the first 36 finishers (out of 43 entered) were under the Olympic qualifying time of 1:00.9. Spitz came across first in 55.6 seconds, which is an Olympic trial, American and world record, in that order, and which displayed another of his patented fast finishes (Spitz is the Silky Sullivan of swimming). "I saw I was behind," he said, "and then—next thing I knew—I was there. All I could hear was my coach..."—he looked around to see if Haines was near—"... who has a rather, uhh, distinctive voice, even in a crowd."
In the days that followed, Spitz went out for everything but the towel concession and taking tickets at the door. He won the 200-meter butterfly (he was one-tenth of a second off his American and world mark), finished third in the 100-meter freestyle and then first in the 200-meter freestyle swim-off to pick relay-team members. "Now then," he said, "I can swim three individual events and two relays in Mexico."
But even with that sort of action, Spitz did not dominate the meet. A shy, 21-year-old from Indiana University. Charlie Hickcox, destroyed a field of 36 in the 400-meter individual medley, breaking all available records with a 4:38.91—and then, after resting fitfully, did it to them all over again in the 200-meter medley, with more records.
Olympian Don Schollander, who won an unprecedented four medals in Tokyo in 1964 and who is now a tottering 22 years old, slashed his way to a record 1:54.28 in the 200-meter freestyle. This seemed perfectly acceptable since he also owned the old world record of 1:55.7. After that, there was considerable poolside talk about the historic confrontation coming up between Schollander and Spitz in the 100-meter free-for-all, but it turned out to be the least-historic confrontation of the swim season. Spitz had been assuring interviewers that he could not bring himself to take it seriously. "It's all a joke to me," he said. "I've proved what I can do, and I'm on the team." Schollander did not talk about it at all and, before the event, they both yawned repeatedly. In the race, while they both were looking the other way, two intent young men came along and beat the black and blue swimsuits off both of them.
First came Zachary Zorn, who is 21, 190 pounds and might be able to beat any freestyler in the world by just stretching out to his full 6'4" in the pool, and then Ken Walsh, who swims very fast in a straight line, climbs out and puts on a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses to see which end of the pool it is. Zorn and Walsh finished in 52.58 and 53.03—records, of course. Spitz hung on for third place, but Schollander was back there in fifth behind a New Jersey flash named Stephen Rerych. Everyone was gentlemanly about the upset, particularly Schollander, who clearly would have done better but for a bad start.
Schollander, who had caught, passed and beaten Zorn in a heat that morning, simply shrugged. "When I saw I wasn't catching Zorn tonight I knew I was in trouble," he said. "Because of that performance I will now swim only two events in Mexico instead of five. Certainly, you have to feel disappointed. In my own mind, I always felt I had a chance for five gold medals. No, it wasn't bad luck. It was just a bad swim."
There was, of course, a grand finale. The pending world record in the 1,500 meters was 16:28.1, a mark set last July by Mexico's Guillermo Echevarría. But here came Mike Burton, of UCLA by way of South Carolina.
Burton headed for a record from the start, pulling away from the pack and handling the affair as though it were a sprint. At the 400-meter mark he was swinging along at 4:13.2, which beat Schollander's 1964 Olympic record; he swam through 800 meters in 8:34.3, knocking off the world mark; at the finish, cutting swiftly through a bedlam of screams, he was clocked in 16:08.67—almost 20 seconds ahead of Echevarría. "And that," murmured Haines, "ought to take care of the allowance for altitude when we get to Mexico."
At the end, wearing natty shades of brown and yellow and his purposeful, man-with-a-mission look, Haines had a 38-man crew that seems unbeatable—on paper or in the water. He stood within a tight circle of newsmen, all of them trying to get him to count up all those cinch Olympic medals. Cautiously, the most optimistic thing Haines would permit himself was a small smile and the comment, "We have a chance to sweep a number of events."
Would Spitz go for not five, but six medals? Haines looked tempted, but he would not commit himself. "We have been talking about it," he said, "the other coaches and I. We have discussed whether he should go in the 100-meter freestyle. The events at the Games seem well enough spaced to handle it. But we don't want to race him if we have some fresh boys sitting around, ready to go."
With that, the perfect swimmers, all evenly formed, uniformly tanned, the little sparkles glinting off their teeth, went into secret drills. Terrible perils lay ahead: the change of altitude, thin air, thick water—and the possibility of debilitating overconfidence between now and the time they swim. Haines would do well not to let any of his swimmers read a newspaper or magazine or watch television between now and the finals, for everyone is singing their praises. It is hard not to.
If all goes well, Haines can bring them to the line in shape. Then, "if our luck holds out," he says, "all we have to do is show them the door to the pool and they'll do the rest."