They seemed to come from everywhere, men thrusting microphones under her nose, kids jostling for her autograph, each honoring in his own way the world's fastest woman swimmer. Of course, one does not usually think of a 14-year-old schoolgirl as a woman, but if Shane Gould demonstrated nothing else on her triumphant visit to California, it was that her athletic gifts went well beyond her years. Only when the adulation of the crowd dissolved her pretty features into a shy smile, baring the braces on her teeth, were watchers jolted into remembering just how suddenly this young Australian with the gunslinger's name had burst onto the scene.
There have been plenty of overnight sensations in swimming, but Shane, whose tender age makes that other evocatively named Australian prodigy, 19-year-old Evonne Goolagong, seem almost matronly by comparison, may be the most sensational of all. It was just last year that she failed to make her country's team for the Commonwealth Games, and the first time she ever swam outside Australia was during a European tour this past spring. That was when it happened. Competing at a meet in London, she stunned the swimming world by tieing the oldest record on the books, Dawn Fraser's 100-meter freestyle clocking of 58.9 in 1964, then showed it was no fluke when she propelled her 5'8" frame through the water the next day to a world mark of 2:06.5 in the 200.
When she turned up in the U.S. for last weekend's Santa Clara International Invitational, Shane was accompanied both by her parents and her newly acquired reputation, and she promptly struck a deal with the former even while she sought to enhance the latter. Moving in with a Santa Clara family, Shane asked her folks, who were staying at a nearby motel, to allow her to extend her week-long U.S. visit an extra 24 hours if she managed to set another world record, even though that would mean missing one more day of high school back in Australia.
The Goulds reluctantly agreed, perhaps figuring that with only four days to recover from her 20-hour flight from Sydney, and to adjust from her wintertime training regimen, their daughter was not in much danger of breaking any more records.
But Shane and pessimistic thoughts are strangers. "I'm pretty sure I'll get a record here," she shrugged, swaddling herself in a towel one morning after a workout in the glittering Santa Clara pool. "I seem to improve every time I get in the water. I haven't finished a race yet where I felt I couldn't go a bit further."
Shane merely wanted an extra day, but her rivals thought she would never leave. Shamelessly dominating the biggest international meet of the year—there were entries from 12 nations—she swept all four freestyle events and, sure enough, got another world record, this time at 400 meters. Going up against Karen Moras, a 17-year-old Australian who held the existing world mark of 4:22.6, Shane moved out in front early and kept enough for the last 50 meters to win going-away from Karen in 4:21.2.
Behind her prowess in the water was the kind of singlemindedness Shane showed immediately following her record swim. Earlier Friday afternoon she had breezed to victory in the 100 meters, and a fellow with one of those microphones asked which of the two events she preferred. Shane was already looking ahead to the next day. "I prefer the 200," she said, and she went on to win that one in 2:06.61, a frustrating one-tenth of a second above her own record. As if three world records for the season were not enough, Shane finished on Sunday with a 9:03.87 in the 800, 20 seconds better than her fastest previous time and tantalizingly close to Karen's record of 9:02.4.
"Shane is more focused on what she's doing than any athlete I've ever seen," marveled Australia's former swim star Murray Rose at poolside, and Shane's father, an airline marketing manager, could only agree. At home in the leafy Sydney suburb of Pymble, Ron Gould has found it necessary to sneak into Shane's bedroom and turn off her alarm clock in order to force her to miss an occasional five a.m. workout and get a little more sleep. Shane's love of physical activity dates back to the seven years she lived as a child in the Fiji Islands, where the elder Gould worked for Pan American World Airways. Shane spent her days tirelessly climbing coconut trees. "She never sucked her thumb," says Ron Gould. "Oh, she had a teddy bear, I suppose, but she never really needed any object of sublimation."
Along with such compatriots as Karen Moras and 16-year-old Graham Windeatt, the two world-record holders at 800 meters, Shane Gould has helped restore Australian swimming to the heights of a decade or more ago. This resurgence, brought about by Australia's relatively recent age-group program as well as by the year-round training made possible by new indoor pools, has posed a particular threat to the women swimmers of the U.S. They are clearly in danger of losing the supremacy they enjoyed at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where they won 11 of 14 swimming gold medals.
But the challenge is coming not just from Australia, nor can it be said for sure that the U.S. men are altogether secure, either. Things are stirring everywhere in world swimming. One indication was the appearance at Santa Clara of 10 Soviet swimmers, the first ever to compete in the U.S. The Russians have improved steadily in recent years, but not nearly as quickly as they had hoped. "When we compare our times with others, we cannot be happy," said Nikolai Rusak, the Soviet director of aquatics. This may suggest that the Soviet Union is now ready to compete in topflight international competition on a more regular basis.
One event the Soviets need not apologize for is the breaststroke, which, perhaps significantly, is also the one stroke with a military application: a soldier using it can carry a heavy backpack in the water. Putting the stroke to her own uses, 22-year-old Galina Stepanova, a gold medalist in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and now mother of a 20-month-old daughter, swam away from the field in both the 100 and 200 meters, while Nikolai Pankin, also 22, twice outdueled his U.S. archrival, Stanford's Brian Job. Following his win in the 200, Pankin received a kiss from his coach, Olga Harlamova, a mountainous one-time airline mechanic who, by the manner in which she herded around her star swimmer, left little doubt that Women's Lib is a settled matter in Moscow.
Job and a number of other U.S. swimmers were not in peak condition, preferring to think of the Santa Clara meet as a tune-up for both the upcoming Pan-American Games and next month's National AAU Championships in Houston. Nonetheless, the American defeats—foreign swimmers took 13 of 24 events—had one leading coach, Sacramento's Sherm Chavoor, grumbling that Americans have been altogether too willing to share their hard-earned swimming techniques with others. When a group of Soviet swim coaches toured California last year, Chavoor declined to let them inspect his Arden Hills Swim Club, although he did consent to a subsequent visit by an Australian coach, Forbes Carlile.
"Maybe I shouldn't even have let Forbes in," said Chavoor in a grave voice. "I like him, but I don't want to help him beat me. People say everybody should try to help each other in sports. I say, baloney." So saying, Chavoor amiably invited Carlile to be his guest again, and off they went to Sacramento after the meet.
It was not difficult, however, to see why Chavoor had misgivings about helping Carlile. At the time of his first visit the Australian was the coach of Gould and Karen Moras (Karen switched soon thereafter to another coach, Don Talbot), both of whom have been helping make life difficult for Chavoor's star pupil, Debbie Meyer. There was a time not long ago when Debbie held four world records, but between them Shane and Karen have stripped her of all but her 1,500-meter mark.
Debbie, who will turn 19 next month, remains the leading U.S. hope to stop the two Australians from utterly dominating the women's freestyle, but she has had difficulty reclaiming her old competitive desire. She showed up in Santa Clara in good spirits and a tomato-red sweat shirt reading M'M! M'M! GOOD—her father works for Campbell Soup Co.—and promptly scratched out of her freestyle specialties, which left her with a third in the 400 individual medley to show for the meet.
"She's not ready mentally," explained Chavoor. "And anyway, I don't want her pushing Gould and Moras to more records. She'll be ready for the nationals." Debbie concurred. "I want to quit a winner," she said. "I've come this far. I'd be crazy to quit now."
At Houston she will have to get along without Shane Gould, who has to study geography and such. Her latest world record did give Shane the extra day in the U.S. her parents had promised, which in turn could have some bearing on the matter of a letter she found time to write to her 16-year-old boyfriend back in Sydney. Meeting her father at the pool on Saturday, Shane instructed him to mail the letter at once. "It's got to get home before I do," she said anxiously. If it worked out that way, it would be the only race she would lose all week.