If the housewives caring for their kids at Sydney's noisy Ryde Swimming Centre had been less absorbed in the latest gossip one recent Monday afternoon, they might have noticed a 15-year-old girl climb from one of the five outdoor pools, then give a little yawn. This episode took on interest because of the 72-point type the Australian press had been investing in the news that the girl, Shane Gould, had special gifts as a swimmer. SHANE SEEKS IMPOSSIBLE FEAT! the headlines would typically report, and next morning they would chorus: SHANE DOES IT AGAIN! Preoccupied housewives notwithstanding, Shane Gould was hardly lacking for attention.
On this day, as she ascended with a yawn from the pool following her afternoon workout, it was Shane's weary fate to face still another wave of journalists, the immediate group including a couple of the hometown Sydney boys, a reporter-photographer team from the Brisbane Sunday Mail and others from as far away as the U.S. and Switzerland. During her sudden emergence as the world's best woman swimmer, Shane had displayed a composure amounting to nonchalance, but the constant presence of so many newsmen sometimes reached her. "They keep coming, and there's no end to them," she had complained more than once. "They've taken hundreds of pictures, thousands—and they still want more."
Shane's reaction to today's visitors was to go sensibly about her business. It was summer in Australia, a holiday from school, and she and her Ryde Swimming Club teammates were enjoying a day off from the New South Wales championships, a 10-day affair that had begun the previous weekend. As the cameramen trained their lenses on her at poolside, she wrapped her wide shoulders in a towel, then drew herself up to her full 5'7½" so as to commend her damp hair to the sun. The pictures, when seen later, would reveal a leggy adolescent with well-made features under a casque of silver-blonde hair. A careful look would disclose, behind a pouty mouth, braces on the teeth. The photos would be suitable for Qantas ads promoting travel in the antipodes, for it was clear that Shane Gould was on her way to becoming a true, tawny-hued Australian beauty.
Neither was it difficult to imagine why she yawned. In the months leading up to this meet, Shane had equaled or broken all five standard world freestyle records and was now stalking similar records in the 200-and 400-meter individual medleys. She had become the talk of the swimming world, much of the conversation being divisible into three topics. The first had to do with her "two-beat kick," a shallow, almost slow-motion leg action that her coach, Forbes Carlile, was predicting would revolutionize competitive swimming. Another was the likelihood that she would make a shambles of women's swimming at the 1972 Olympics. Finally, there was the question of when she would ever lose another freestyle race, a calamity that had last struck the Australian teen-ager eight months before.
March 13, 1972
Shane's heroics began in London last April 30 on her first overseas swimming junket. Still six months shy of her 15th birthday, she tied the oldest record in swimming, the 100-meter freestyle clocking of 58.9 set by countrywoman Dawn Fraser in 1964. The next day Shane broke the 200-freestyle record, one she would lower later in the year to 2:05.8 in a race otherwise memorable for a horrendous start that left her still on the block as the other girls hit the water. There followed in orderly sequence world freestyle marks at 400 meters (4:21.2), 800 (8:58.1) and 1,500 (17:00.6). Her swim in the 1,500, which lopped 18.6 seconds off the previous record, would have won the men's event in the Olympics as recently as 1964.
Along with haste in the water, Shane was demonstrating faith in her own destiny, a quality that surfaced as early as November 1970 when she submitted to wearing braces only on the promise they be off by the 1972 Games. Just another Olympic hopeful at the time, she has dutifully accepted her orthodontist appointments ever since, trudging up a narrow stairway above a health-food store and into a cramped waiting room furnished with romance comics titled Love in the Wild and Spy Spell. All the while, her confidence reached new heights. "I feel like I could have gone a 'teenth' faster," she said after every record swim. "I don't think I've begun to swim my best times."
As Australians read of her deeds over their morning chops and eggs, Shane became a national heroine. Her 1,500-meter record, set Dec. 12 in a small interclub meet at Sydney's Birrong Pool, attracted 3,000 spectators, half of whom, having seen what they came for, went home following her swim, passing up later events on the program. Even before Tass and UPI (Europe) honored Shane as sportswoman of 1971, her parents were spending $5 a week in postage to answer fan mail that arrived at their suburban Sydney home from abroad. The Goulds also felt compelled to get a silent line, Australianese for an unlisted phone number, because of calls from strange young men of the kind who ring up late at night and whisper, "It's Jimes 'ere. A'd like to speak to Shine."
All this excitement had built to a climax the previous Saturday, the opening night of the New South Wales meet, the specific occasion being a bid by Shane to break the 100-meter record she still shared with the retired Dawn Fraser. If she could do so, it would end Dawn's almost unbelievable 16-year hold on the 100, a monopoly that began when she first broke the record in 1956 and continued as she lowered it 10 times more. It would make Shane the first woman to hold every world freestyle record outright since an American named Helene Madison did it in the 1930s.
Before the meet Shane's father had put a sign on her bedroom door at home—THE 588 CLUB—signifying the time (58.8) his daughter needed. Coach Carlile freely predicted she would break the record. Shane, always withdrawn before important races, seemed even more so this time.' I think and rethink a race," she explained later. "Sometimes people start a conversation. I don't want to hurt their feelings, but I don't hear them." As if these powers of concentration did not give her enough of a dreamy quality, Shane had her nose in a book every free minute; she read four novels the week before the 100, classics all, and said of one of them, Wuthering Heights, "It was so full of emotion, I was in a daze."
On the day of the race there were requests, all declined by Carlile, from 10 photographers, each interested in shooting Shane "relaxing at home." That night 5,000 fans, the largest crowd to attend a swim meet in Australia in a decade, overflowed North Sydney pool, the Depression-era facility in which Fraser had set her 58.9. The pool is located at the foot of Harbour Bridge, the arched, steel-girded landmark that dominates Sydney Harbour like some fantastic Erector-set creation, and hundreds of people who had been turned away at the door lined the bridge's walkway to watch the race from a lofty distance. Other Australians looked in on a special nationwide TV hookup.
Under these conditions, Shane showed a rare flash of schoolgirl emotion. At the urgent request of the TV producers, meet officials had agreed at the last minute to rearrange the program so as to move up the featured 100 by half an hour. Word of the change somehow never reached Shane, who was preparing for the race by doing rope-pulling exercises in a cluttered storage room. A moment or two before race time, a meet official walked in. "Better get to the starting block," he told her.
Shane looked up, a cloud forming on her normally impassive face. Her lips trembled and her blue eyes welled over. "Why didn't anybody tell me?" she sobbed.
Shane later said, "It was like asking a car that stands out in the cold to accelerate without warming up." (Other figures of speech have infiltrated her talk, an apparent effect of her reading, as when she told an Australian reporter that the 100 "is the one with all the ribbons around it.") But by the time she reached the starting block, Shane was dry-eyed. Her hands hung loosely at her side, communicating by some mysterious process with the rest of her body. She inhaled deeply, as if to savor one last vertical moment before going horizontal in the water. The crowd cheered when the gun sounded and was still cheering when a smiling Shane Gould reached the winners platform. The time was 58.5, almost half a second under the old record.
All of which explains why Shane was tired after her Monday-afternoon practice at Ryde Swimming Centre. It also accounts for the concern of her father, who stopped to pick her up on the way home from his duties as marketing manager of East West Airlines, a commuter carrier with offices in Sydney's central business district. After his white Falcon had pulled alongside the double-deck buses moving on busy Victoria Road, Ron Gould asked, "Did you take a nap today, Shanie?"
Shane was riding in the back, her seat belt secured. "I tossed and turned a lot," she said. "I was in bed three hours, but I only had my eyes closed for two."
Her father, a bespectacled man with a carefully groomed look about him, fidgeted with the radio dial. He lingered on a news account of a storm that had caused flooding farther up the coast in Queensland. Then he switched to music. "What about the other hour?"
"I was reading The Red Badge of Cow-age—ever hear of it? Besides, it was too hot in my room."
"Why didn't you open the window?"
"I guess I was too excited to sleep."
Gould let the subject drop, affirming by his silence that his daughter had reason to be tired and excited, and the car pulled into a driveway. The Goulds live in Pymble, one of the privileged suburbs on Sydney's verdant north shore, an area linked to the city by electric train. The majority of the homes in the neighborhood are built of red brick, while the Goulds' is a frame structure, but it otherwise conforms in most particulars: one-story, orange-tiled roof, small lawn bordered by gardens. It does not seem large from the road, but is roomy enough for each of the four Gould daughters to have her own bedroom.
All the girls are involved in swimming, but their rooms offer few hints of this interest. The one belonging to 8-year-old Jennifer, a breaststroker of promise, is adorned with little floral prints. Debbie, three years older and currently less keen about pursuing her swimming than, say, seeing the Melbourne Cup, has graced her walls with drawings of horses. Eighteen-year-old Lynette, a $1.25-an-hour swim coach who has retired from competition, has tacked up a Peter Fonda poster that Shane brought back from her trip to London. Shane's room is equally unrevelatory. Besides the CLUB 588 sign, there were on this day two or three trophies on display, hardware that would not fit in the bulging suitcase under the bed.
Perhaps oddly, the lawn outside was where clues abounded to the presence of swimmers. There was, for example, a great array of bath towels on the clothesline. Then, too, the Goulds had begun the practice of planting trees in honor of Shane's feats, much as Australians once named a daffodil after Dawn Fraser. The gardening was the province of Shane's mother, and, after she finished serving her daughters their dinner of roast lamb, Shirley Gould went outside. She stepped over a garden hose strewn on the lawn and past a cage housing a guinea pig named Fluffy, part of a family menagerie that includes Tiki the cat and Libby, a 1½-year-old beagle.
A dark-haired, trimly attractive woman, Shirley Gould pointed out a young juniper that commemorated the 100-meter swim in London, what she identified as a variegated pittosporum honoring the 200 record and a grevillea for the 400. Then, in the front yard, she abruptly ended the tour. "We haven't anything for the 800 or 1,500 yet," she apologized. "It's all happened too fast."
If Shane Gould remains in form, her mother may require the help of a full-time gardener. To hear Australians discuss the matter, Shane is a cinch to win anywhere from four to seven gold medals when she gets her teeth—braceless, presumably—into this summer's Olympics. If they are right, the Aussies could enjoy their best showing since they took eight of 13 swimming gold medals at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
By coincidence, it was on the day after those Olympics began, Nov. 23, 1956, that Shane Elizabeth Gould was born in Sydney. Shane's Christian name, a variation of the Welsh name Sian, was suggested to the Goulds by their neighbors at the time, tennis star Lew Hoad and his wife Jennifer. Ron Gould's father had immigrated to Australia from Wales after World War I, and the idea, of a Welsh name had appeal, even though the success of an earlier Alan Ladd Western, Shane, has made it necessary ever since to wage what Ron Gould calls "a public-relations campaign to feminize it."
The Goulds then lived, as did the Hoads, in a two-story apartment building in Sydney's Rose Bay area, a neighborhood that Shane visited on Wednesday during the New South Wales tournament. She had competed in heats that morning, and afterward had been accompanied by her mother to a fitting for a new dress she would wear on an upcoming round of awards banquets, at each of which she would be named sportswoman of the year, outpolling another teenager, tennis-playing Evonne Goolagong. Shane was excited about the dress, a softly gathered, full-length original of Italian silk crepe, so much so that when she and her mother arrived at the designer's studio, they were nearly half an hour early for their appointment.
Shirley Gould suggested that they use the time to visit their old apartment building, only a few minutes away. On the drive to Rose Bay, Shane was able to recall a couple of things about the neighborhood, even though the Goulds had lived there only until she was three. One was a "great steep hill" where Shane had ridden a tricycle. Another was a "great, huge, deep" swimming pool belonging to a neighbor. They arrived at the building, prettily situated near the head of Sydney Harbour, and got out. Shane was puzzled. The hill, which led past the apartment building down to the water, was not as menacing as she had thought. It was the same when she got to the pool, a boxy affair that Shane could have negotiated with two strokes. "It's funny how everything seems so much grander when you're little," she said.
Shane had lived at Rose Bay until Pan American Airways, her father's employer at the time, transferred him to the Fiji Islands, where the family spent the next six years in a thatched-roof house near Nadi Airport. To hear her parents tell it, Shane went the way of Rima the bird girl. Unusually hyperactive, a tomboy in the extreme, she swung bare-toed from a tire hung from a mango limb and shinnied coconut palms with the natives. When they returned to Australia in 1966, the Goulds decided to channel their 9-year-old daughter's energies into swimming. Once she was settled in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Shane began toppling age-group records.
The Goulds moved from Queensland to Sydney in early 1970. There she began training with Carlile, coach at the time of Karen Moras, Australia's ranking woman swimmer. Shane soon found herself logging 30 miles a week in workouts, double her weekly distances in Brisbane. It was at this point that she developed her now celebrated two-beat kick, so called because it involves only two shallow kicks to each cycle of the arms, a far less active leg action than the powerhouse four-beat crossovers and booming six-beats that have predominated for years.
The original Australian crawl 60 years ago featured a two-beat kick, but that was a heavy, bent-knee action. In the mid-1960s, persuaded that the arm stroke might be more important than the kick over a long race, distance swimmers began toning down their kicks, in some cases all the way to a gentle, straight-legged two-beat. The main role of the legs in this technique is to provide balance rather than propulsion, to help keep the body high in the water and facilitate a quick, elbow-high entry with little "glide" between strokes. Carlile was enthusiastic about the two-beat, and his distance swimmers, including Karen Moras, were drilled in it.
The arrival of Shane Gould posed a problem. Both out of personal preference and lack of stamina, she had concentrated on shorter distances up to that time, yet no successful sprinter had ever used the two-beat. Today both Shane and her father believe she was already employing the kick naturally, but Carlile claims that she actually had an "indeterminate broken-tempo kick." Despite his feelings about the two-beat, Carlile wavered. "I was afraid to commit a good sprinter to it," he recalls. "There was no precedent." He put Shane on a kickboard intensively in hopes of getting her to use her legs more, but she had difficulty doing so—a handicap her coach happily came to regard as a great strength. Left alone, Shane fell quickly into the pure two-beat of her new Ryde teammates.
Carlile now predicts that there will be a "widespread rejection" of big booming kicks even among sprinters, and his protégée's stunning success has already sent many coaches back to the drawing boards. But voices of caution are heard. George Haines, the successful coach at the Santa Clara (Calif.) Swim Club, says, "The two-beat seems to work for Shane, but it depends on the individual." Sherm Chavoor, who will coach the U.S. women at Munich, declares, "It's O.K. only if you're able to keep your body flat the way Shane does, and if you compensate with a strong pull." And Don Talbot, who will coach the Australian Olympic team, says firmly, "Our great sprinters will always be big kickers. Shane? She's not a sprinter. She's a distance swimmer."
It is difficult to know for sure whether Talbot is right, so quickly did Shane, as she gained strength, move up from the sprints to distance events. One immediate victim was Karen Moras, who seemed about to succeed Debbie Meyer as the fastest woman afloat when she found herself being overtaken in—of all places—her home pool. Australian swimming is inhabited by the same sort of dewy-eyed moppets and ambitious parents so familiar in the U.S., and trouble was probably unavoidable. Karen and Shane were played off one against the other, and older Ryde swimmers, resenting the newcomer, openly cheered against Shane in meets.
In January 1971, six months after Shane's arrival, Karen abruptly dropped Carlile as her coach and switched to Talbot. In an unusually candid TV interview, the compact, freckle-nosed teenager implied that Carlile had paid more attention to Shane and that she, Karen, had been reduced to a "workhorse" for the younger girl. "I couldn't stand the rivalry," Karen said. For her part, Shane told the same interviewer how the two of them would "eye each other at the pool" and admitted that she used to lie in bed at night, telling herself, "I'm going to beat Karen Moras."
That vow was fulfilled at the Australian championships a year ago when Shane won four national titles, outdueling Karen for two of them. A couple of months later the two girls left with a group of Australian swimmers on a European trip. They roomed together at one point and became, if not close, what both now call "pretty good friends." It was on this trip, in London, that Shane got her first world records at 100 and 200 meters, while the gritty Karen worked in one last lick by outswimming Shane for a world record of her own in the 400. That was the last freestyle defeat for Shane, who took away Karen's 400 record two months later at the Santa Clara international meet in California.
In assessing Shane's success, Carlile has the good sense to stop short of giving all the credit to the two-beat kick. He also cites Shane's powerful shoulders and chest, which he suggests were strengthened by her Fiji tree climbing. "Tree climbing involves the same muscles as swimming," he says. As the one who gives Shane her rubdowns, his wife and co-coach Ursula Carlile is glad to elaborate. "She has very specific, well-defined muscles," Mrs. Carlile says. "They're not soft like most girls' muscles, but they're not heavy and bulky like a boy's, either. With Shane it's almost like a thoroughbred. You have the impression she can damage easily."
For all the talk of tendons and technique, Shane's most important asset is undoubtedly her tenacity, a quality that was on repeated display during the weather-marred closing days of the New South Wales meet. The storm that had battered Queensland earlier had moved down to Sydney. One night it was raining so hard that the outline of Harbour Bridge was barely visible from the North Sydney pool. Seated under a leaky roof was a 16-year-old backstroker named John Williams, a Ryde teammate whose ring Shane Gould had been wearing for months. Having long since learned about his girl friend's fierce concentration, John was discreetly sitting with other friends. "I try to stay out of Shane's way before a race," he said. "We had a bit of a quarrel about that at first."
It was still raining the next afternoon when Shane, having easily won her two events the night before, arrived for practice. She worked hard, joining in no giggling with the other girls and chatting very little between laps, not even with John. The workout was in sharp contrast with the two recent occasions when Carlile had ordered Shane out of the water for loafing. Her explanation had been revealing: "When Forbes punishes you, it shows you're one of the group. You're not a goody-goody."
Sure of Shane's dedication, Carlile is able to bear up under those moments when she seems determined to be an ordinary teen-ager. A mild man, with matted-down hair-that makes him appear almost monkish, he grumbles only halfheartedly about the occasional cream cakes that keep Shane's weight at a shade over the 126 pounds he favors. Nor did he protest unduly when she let her close-cropped hair grow so long that it now can be drawn into two small bunches in the back. And whenever Shane and John go sailing in Sydney Harbour on the Williams family's 26-foot sloop, Sirius, Carlile just shrugs. "Sailing tires her out," he complains, "but I never find out till afterward."
The greatest liberties are those Shane takes with the Ryde training program of daily two-hour workouts both before and after school. The first session begins at 4:45 a.m., which leaves Shane enough time afterward to eat breakfast, change into her school uniform—bowler hat, checked dress and anklets—and cram in half an hour of studying before classes begin at nine at Turramurra High, a modern school overlooking a wildlife preserve ablaze with blossom-laden eucalyptus trees. An above-average student, Shane manages to stay well ahead in her homework, casually reading some assignments while lying in bed and bicycling her legs overhead. But she misses three or four workouts a week, usually at the insistence of her parents, whose efforts to restrain their child contrast with those of swim parents who are always prodding. "We want swimming to be a part of Shane's life," her father says. Indeed, when there was talk that the Olympics would keep Shane out of school for 12 or 13 weeks, Ron Gould was quoted as saying he might not let her go to Munich. To keep her away from practice, the Goulds have been known to sneak into her bedroom and turn off her alarm clock. "I'm glad to sleep later some mornings," Shane says, although she also recounts the time she crossed up her parents by awakening without an alarm and calling friends to pick her up.
In protecting their daughter, Ron and Shirley Gould have also reminded sports-writers making demands on her time, "Now remember, she's 15 years old." Despite that plea, pressures are mounting. After Shane told reporters that she would drop the 1,500 (a non-Olympic distance) because it was "too grueling," a letter arrived from one Australian insisting that "for the good of her country" she must become the first woman to break 17 minutes in the event. The Olympics will bring even greater expectations, as Don Talbot recognizes when he warns, "If Shane wins only two gold medals, the world won't be satisfied."
From the way she coasted through the New South Wales meet, Shane seems, for now, equal to any pressure. She finished that week winning eight events, setting one world record and four Australian records, an especially impressive performance considering the rainfall, which amounted to nearly 10 inches over the meet's final days. But the crowds, their enthusiasm spent on Shane's 100-meter record, greeted each subsequent triumph with the most perfunctory applause. Meanwhile, a strange new word was creeping into the newspapers. It was the verb "to fail," as in "Shane Gould failed last night to set a record in the 100 butterfly."
In the future, it is likely that the records will come more slowly for Shane. Not even Forbes Carlile could flatly discount the danger that his swimmer might be peaking too early in an Olympic year. "It is possible, I suppose," he says, "but we hope we'll have her so far ahead that she can do less than her best and still win."
Before the 400 freestyle swim on Saturday night, her final individual event of the championships, Shane addressed herself to the future, too. "I'm just swimming to win races from now on," she said. "Not to set records.' If a record comes—well, whoopee!"
The 400 was held—naturally—in the rain, with only the spectators' gaily colored umbrellas offering any relief from the gloom that had long since settled over the pool. The field included Karen Moras, who said, "My ambition is to beat Shane in any event—even if I'm 80 when I do it." Reluctant to wait quite that long, Karen went out fast and Shane Gould, pressed hard, hit the 100-meter turn a "teenth" below her own world-record pace. It developed that she had gone too fast, at least as far as any new record was concerned, but she did succeed in shaking Karen.
In a demonstration of will as much as speed, Shane moved cleanly along, her two-beat kick so faint that it left virtually no wake. She hit the wall in 4:25.9, almost five seconds over her record, but she was a good nine meters in front of Karen Moras. As the swimmers lifted themselves from the pool, somebody produced an umbrella to shield Shane Gould from the rain with which she had so much in common. Both had stormed down from Queensland, and neither seemed ready to let up quite yet.