About halfway through the NCAA swimming meet last Friday night, there was one brief moment when mighty Indiana looked like it might be in trouble. The Hoosiers' No. 1 star, Mark Spitz, had lost his second race, and now, on the scoreboard in the University of Utah's new natatorium, the numbers read: USC 114, Indiana 113. In the stands people were sitting up and watching with renewed interest. Maybe, after all, the Hoosiers weren't the surefire, foolproof, guaranteed cinches the experts said they were. And maybe this Spitz kid was just another pretty face. And maybe Indiana's rotund, fidgety coach, Dr. James E. (Doc) Counsilman, had better begin to sweat a little bit.
No way. "I know what we have coming up," said Doc serenely.
At the end, after Indiana had out-scored USC 332-235 to win its third straight NCAA championship, everyone else knew, too. As soon as the Hoosiers fell behind, two of their talented freshmen, Gary Hall and Larry Barbiere, went out and picked up a couple of quick gold medals, each winning in NCAA record time (Hall in the 400-yard individual medley and Barbiere in the 100-yard backstroke). That gave Indiana breathing room, and then on the final night, under the severest kind of pressure, Mark Spitz added the finishing touch. Besides electrifying the crowd by winning his specialty, the 100-yard butterfly, Spitz won a big victory over himself and Doug Russell of Texas-Arlington, a ghost who has been haunting him since the 1968 Olympics.
The outcome of the meet was not completely satisfying to the Hoosiers, who had expected to win more than their five gold medals. Nevertheless, Indiana's margin of victory was the second largest in NCAA history—surpassed only by its 121-point spread last year.
By far the biggest conversation piece of the week, however, was the environment—the natatorium and the rarefied air (Salt Lake is 4,200 feet above sea level). Almost all the swimmers liked the natatorium, but there were complaints about the atmosphere and some imperfections in the pool itself, both of which tended to make for slower times. But nothing bothered Tennessee's Dave Edgar, who won both freestyle sprints, and Stanford's Brian Job, who set NCAA records while winning both breaststrokes. And then, of course, there was UCLA's tireless Mike Burton, who ended his college career in fine style. The meet's only triple winner, Burton got a standing ovation on the final night after winning his specialty, the 1,650-yard freestyle.
While everybody else was making off with the gold, Indiana made excellent use of baser elements—depth and persistence. Diver Jim Henry was the only Hoosier to score two victories, but Indiana was picking up points—a third place here, a fifth there—in almost every event.
The team's world-class swimmers, especially Mark Spitz, were lackluster. On the first night, for instance, after USC's Frank Heckl beat Hall in the 200-yard IM, Spitz finished second to Edgar in the 50. The fact that Spitz lost was only slightly more surprising than Counsilman's decision to scratch him from the 500—a race he won last year—and put him in the 50, which Spitz has never swum in major competition.
"Mark hadn't been swimming the 500 well," explained Counsilman, "and he won't be as tired the rest of the way by swimming the 50. Also the altitude has been on his mind ever since the Olympics, where it hurt him. It's gotten to be a mental block."
On Friday, Spitz fared even poorer in the 200 free, an event in which he shares the world record with Don Schollander. He got so far behind that his strong kick only got him a third in back of Michigan's Juan Bello and Heckl. After the race Spitz returned to his motel room and began thinking about his next race—and Doug Russell.
The rivalry between Spitz and Russell dates back to 1967, when they began swimming against each other in meets all around the country. Spitz won every race until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when Russell beat him out for the gold in the 100-meter fly. Right away Russell's admirers claimed their man was the world's best swimmer, and Spitz' fans retorted by saying that the Olympic win was a fluke. There the matter simmered until last Saturday night, when the two met for the first time since the Olympics. As Spitz said, "There were almost duplicate circumstances here, with the altitude and the pressure. It was kind of like a second dream, or an instant replay, almost."
The pressure was increased by the fact that everyone in the natatorium was well aware of how Spitz and Russell felt about each other. As the two swimmers sat on their starting blocks, shaking their muscles loose, a crowd of swimmers from UCLA and USC began chanting, "Let's go, Russell." Spitz' Indiana teammates retorted with, "Let's go, Mark."
When the swimmers took their marks, Spitz felt so tight—and was quivering so much—he jumped into the water for a false start, which drew whistles and boos from Russell's partisans.
Said Spitz later, "My adrenalin was going so much that my hands cramped up, and I couldn't open them. So I made the false start."
Then the starter's gun cracked, and the race was on, Russell and Spitz bobbing up and down, head to head. After 50 yards it was clearly a two-man race. Then Russell began moving ahead, first by inches, then by feet. As they hit the wall and turned for home, Russell still had the lead, but Spitz was gaining. With 10 yards to go, he seemed ahead, and then it was over. As they touched, Spitz and Russell whirled to look at the scoreboard. Already the big No. 1 sign was up next to Lane 4—Mark Spitz.
"At one particular time, at one particular place, everybody said he was the greatest in the world," said Spitz. "I have a lot of respect for Russell. But he never broke my records, and to me the best swimmer is the most consistent one. This was very satisfying to me, because I proved to myself I could beat him. I can't forget losing, and I never will. My worst moment was at the Olympics, and my best, maybe, was tonight."
While Spitz was being congratulated, Russell sat alone in a corner. "I wanted that one awfully bad," he said. "I guess it meant more to me than it did to him. The only time I beat him was at Mexico City. When I got home I learned that he had been sick down there and all that other stuff. That made my win look like a fluke. I went to Louisville last year for the AAUs, but he scratched. I might have been too tense after two years of pent-up emotion."
After the meet was over and all the trophies had been presented, Spitz added a final thought. "You know," he said, "I felt sorry for Doug sitting over there in that corner all alone, but, man, I've been there, too, and I don't want to be there ever again."