The moral: masochists are all wet
Pounding along in the sweet upper air, the runner has all the best of it; a few vigorous shakes of the thigh muscles, a deep breath and he's away. The obvious tortures of running very fast are offset by the fact that prancing across the top of the earth is pretty much man's natural state. The truer triumphant pain comes from throwing one's body, goose pimples and all, into a pool and churning out lap after endless lap, swallowing damp chlorinated air, only dimly conscious of the view, which is the tiled bottom somewhere below. Competitive swimmers are among the first to confirm all this—in fact, they proudly insist upon it—and at meets everywhere in the world they bob up at finish lines wearing looks of exhilaration laid on like a frosting over weariness. These raptures-in-exhaustion are reflected at right and on the pages that follow in Heinz Kluetmeier's collection of season's highs—and its soaking-wet lows.
On the eve of the world swimming championships in Yugoslavia last summer, U.S. Coach Gus Stager accompanied some of his athletes on a hydrofoil ride down the Danube. With the craft skimming along at 50 mph, it suddenly occurred to Stager that in their workouts his swimmers had been proceeding at a somewhat slower pace. A frown appeared. "I can't believe how little these kids are working," he complained as the Danube's steep, mist-shrouded banks whizzed by. "Some of them are pretty lazy."
Granted, the coach who accuses his charges of working too hard is rare in any sport, but in swimming even a tyrant might be a softie compared to his peers. Stager and his fellow swim coaches expect and demand hard work because theirs is among the most grueling of endurance sports. Swimmers talk of sprints, but the term is plainly a misnomer. In the 100-meter freestyle, briefest of the watery Olympic events, the world record 51.22 that Mark Spitz swam in the 1972 Games took five times longer than Valery Borzov needed to cover the same distance on the track.
The physical demands of competitive swimming make unavoidable the sport's infamous icy predawn workouts, each lap punctuated by the barking of first-sergeant coaches. In fact, most of the predominantly teen-aged athletes that Stager accused of loafing in Yugoslavia have followed the same grim regimen for half their lives: for three or more hours daily, through 11 months of the year, they swim. And swim.
Ask swimmers why they bother and they tend to reply with something like wet black humor. Don Schollander, a Yale man who could pull off such terms, tossed around the word masochistic a lot. Debbie Meyer found perverse pleasure in calling herself and other swimmers mechanical robots. Australian Coach Terry Gathercole calls training laps, simply enough, the "mileage mangle." When Pole Vaulter Bob Seagren took swimming lessons for last week's Superstars competition, he got a painful idea of what Schollander and the others were talking about. Complaining that "these lessons are killing me," Seagren concluded, reluctantly, that swimmers are the world's fittest athletes.
Because the very young are more likely to submit to such rigors, the sport abounds in water sprites like Jenny Turrall, a 5'2" Australian freestyler who is all of 13 yet holds world records at 800 and 1,500 meters. The fact that competitors are so young also accounts for swimming's answer to stage parents: pushy moms and dads who are forever second-guessing and otherwise clashing with the sport's equally aggressive coaches and officials. In a new book evocatively titled The 50-Meter Jungle, Sherm Chavoor, one of the most successful U.S. coaches, claims that swimming is the focus of "more scratching and clawing, more struggling for power, and more parasitism than almost anywhere else in the world of sports."
Happily, the swimmers themselves seldom notice the nastiness. At the pool, during their rare moments out of the water, they are too busy sunbathing on the deck, flirting with one another or snapping towels. When practice ends, they put on T shirts imprinted with WHAT'S UP DOC? (the reference is to Indiana's Coach Doc Counsilman), or BY GEORGE (meaning George Haines, the longtime Santa Clara coach who will switch to UCLA next season) and climb into the family station wagon. At home that evening the last embers are still glowing in backyard barbecues when they head for their bedrooms, which are decorated with that inevitable Mark Spitz poster. Too exhausted to even look at the copies of Swimming World piled high on the nightstand, they fall immediately to sleep. They dream, of course, of the bottom of the pool.
But certain threats confront this painfully peaceful existence. Australia, copying the successful American age-group program, keeps turning up fresh young talent like Turrall and 15-year-old Steve Holland, the world's top distance man. Canada, the 1976 Olympic host, has launched a government campaign to make swimming one of the country's showcase sports. And the toughest challenge of all comes from East Germany, which will take on the U.S. in a dual meet in late August.
The East Germans boast 23-year-old Roland Matthes, unbeaten in the backstroke for an extraordinary seven years, and an armada of fleet, powerful girls. Success is so ephemeral in swimming that there currently is only one world record more than two years old, but the showing by GDR women at last year's world championships still came as a shock. Of 15 world records set in Belgrade, seven fell to the East German M√§dchen. Besides confirming Gus Stager's worst fears, the GDR's humiliation of the American women pointed up a dangerous trend: while U.S. swimming has always been a story of brief lives, with mass retirements following every Olympics, the dropout rate has been especially high among the girls.
The problem is that too few of the incentives that keep the men going—such tangibles as college scholarships—have been available to the women. It is encouraging, then, that women are finally getting their own teams on many U.S. campuses and that some are even performing on men's teams. To be sure, coed competition was not altogether happy for one such pioneer, University of Virginia backstroker Ellen Feldmann, who complained that teammates cheered against her in meets, adding, "All I have to do is gut it out and the boys give up." After her comments were quoted, Ellen quit in embarrassment. Obviously not all the scratching and clawing can be blamed on parents and coaches.