Everybody knew that the best backstroker in the world would be beaten sooner or later. But the longer they waited, the more a nagging suspicion seemed to rise: perhaps only hardening arteries could sink East Germany's 23-year-old Roland Matthes. For seven years, through two Olympics and a world championship, he had left all opponents in his world-record wake. And then came last Saturday and the much-heralded East German-U.S. meet at Concord, Calif., as theatrical a confrontation as swimming can produce.
The champion arrived for the competition burdened with ailments and self-doubts, the latter aggravated by the challenge of fast-improving John Naber, a stringy, 6'6" Southern Cal sophomore. Naber's goal was reflected in the GO, SNAKE, YOU'RE NO. 1 banner friends held aloft when he mounted the starting block. But beat Roland Matthes?
Thus it was a moment of high drama when, with nearly half a pool length to go in the 200-meter backstroke, it suddenly became apparent that Matthes' astonishing winning streak was going to end. The SRO crowd of 6,000 at the Concord pool cheered itself silly, and Bruce Furniss, one of the Snake's teammates, kept leaping up and down and screaming, "He's going to beat him! He's going to do it!" Matthes' teammates sat in stunned silence, their mood as blue as the color of their warmup jackets.
This was Matthes' first defeat in the backstroke since he lost a 100-meter race to countryman Joachim Rother in April 1967, and he suffered it with equanimity. Removing the yellow cap that covered his shoulder-length locks, he leaned across a lane marker to give Naber a bear hug and he smiled gallantly for the photographers. "I'm very disappointed," he said. "But a good athlete must learn to lose as well as to win, and tonight I am learning." Climbing from the water, he shrugged and noted, "Man wird alt—a fellow gets old."
September 8, 1974
The 18-year-old Naber was at once exultant and embarrassed. Allowing that Matthes had long been his idol—as he has been to practically every young backstroker—Naber said, "Beating him is like finding out there is no Santa Claus. It's like waking from a dream." Then noting that his 2:02.83 clocking was nearly a second slower than Matthes' world record, he added, "It was fortunate for me that Roland was out of shape."
That Matthes was indeed below par was confirmed the next evening when he lost again to Naber, who out-touched him to capture the 100 backstroke in 57.74—a satisfying win but well over Matthes' world record of 56.30. Nor were these woes the only ones endured by the East Germans during the two-day meet. The U.S. won the team diving title 24-20 and the overall swimming competition 198-145. With the downfall of Matthes the American men swept all 15 of their events. But they were expected to win; almost as heartening was the performance of the U.S. women, who proved that there is still such a thing as a moral victory.
The East German Wunderm√§dchen took 10 of 14 events, but outscored the U.S. women by only 84-79. They were certainly not as overwhelming as they had been at last year's world championships in Belgrade, where they had swamped the U.S. women. Until that debacle, American water sprites had been secure in the knowledge that the Santa Clara Swim Club or Lakewood Aquatic could beat the world.
Coach Rudolf Schramme of East Germany was undismayed by his team's showing in Concord. "This competition here is just fine, but it's really only a tune-up," he said. "What we are pointing for is the Olympics in Montreal." For such as butterflyer Rosemarie Kother, individual medleyist Ulrike Tauber and backstroker Ulrike Richter, the tune-up was impressive. Each won two races in the Concord pool—with Richter and Kother breaking world records—and they erased any lingering doubts that they are the world's best in their specialties. And the East German women might have done even better but for some tough luck.
Renate Vogel placed third in the 200 breaststroke but was disqualified for an improper kick on the turns, an infraction that reduced the 19-year-old veteran to tears. "That's the way I've always swum it," she protested, and then came back to take the 100-meter breaststroke in a world record 1:12.28. Then star freestyler Kornelia Ender came down with a touch of the flu—her team doctor held American air conditioning partly to blame—that forced her to scratch from one event. Ender did swim in the 400 freestyle relay, only to badly misjudge a turn, an error that helped the U.S. win the event. But then she rallied once more to win the 100 free and anchor her 400 medley relay team to victory.
Still, none of this is to underrate the zeal of the American girls, who prepared for the battle of Concord like so many Paula Reveres. Leading the way, Shirley Babashoff equaled her own world record of 2:02.94 to take the 200 freestyle and then won the 400 free. The East Germans and Americans were allowed two entries apiece in individual events, and Babashoff also was runner-up in the 800 to Jo Harshbarger, a mere sparrow of a girl who finished just .09 over her world record of 8:47.5. What is more, Babashoff anchored the U.S. team in the 400 freestyle relay, the event in which Ender missed her turn, and another world record—3:51.99—was the result.
The U.S. women also took a gratifying number of second and third places, an indication of team depth that bodes well for the future. A few minutes before she was to compete in the 200 breaststroke, Millikin University sophomore Marcia Morey went to the first-aid station with a stomach ache. "I think it's just because I'm scared," she confessed. It was worthy of a TV commercial: Marcia was given antacid tablets, then was mobbed by excited teammates after her strongest race ever gave her a solid second place behind East Germany's Karla Linke.
While Morey and other Americans were logging their best times, it appeared that at least some of the Germans had peaked too early. In the 10 days or so before the dual meet they had been on a world-record binge unprecedented even in record-happy swimming. When the stopwatches were finally put away, American women, competing in the national AAU championships in the same Concord pool, had wound up with just three world marks while the East German women left the European championships in Vienna with 10. Naturally the East German success rekindled charges that its women were taking male hormones and steroids, with a French doctor doing a lot to fuel the accusations.
"These women have uncommon muscle development," he told reporters in Vienna. "They have a special skin quality, a bit of hairiness unusual in girls of this age, rather curious voices and certain signs in their steps."
But the only thing that was really obvious at poolside in California was that many of the East Germans were now in the 150-pound range, having gained considerable weight in recent months.
Coach Schramme spoke candidly of the one or two massively constructed, baritone-voiced women on his team. "I admit these girls are of a certain physiological type," he said, "but this is only because we tend to look for that type to begin with. It's not the training that makes them that way. In fact, without the training they'd probably be even stouter than they are."
Schramme dismissed the talk of steroids and hormones as "ridiculous," attributing the brawn to weight training and other muscle-building exercises. Apparently accepting that explanation, several U.S. women are turning to weight training. "Our girls have always been afraid that weights would make us too muscular," said Marcia Morey, "but I'm going to start using them this fall." Already lifting weights is Babashoff, whose once skinny 5'10" frame has fleshed out to 145, a gain of some 15 pounds.
One interesting question was why the East German men have failed to make a breakthrough to match the women's. Instead it is the U.S. that keeps coming up with the bright new stars, the latest being Tim Shaw and Naber. Shaw, a slender, painfully shy schoolboy from Long Beach, set three world records at the U.S. championships—in the 200, 400 and 1,500 freestyles. In the excitement of breaking the 400 record a friend entrusted with holding his glasses dropped and broke them. "Everything's in a blur," Shaw complained, but he saw his way to winning the same three events last weekend, although not in record time.
Naber is as outgoing as Shaw is withdrawn, and why not? Aren't backstrokers accustomed to facing the crowd rather than the bottom of the pool? As a freshman last spring Naber led USC to a one-point upset of perennial NCAA champion Indiana, and he was unbeaten in the backstroke for almost a year. But that accomplishment paled next to Matthes' streak, and at Concord the American was properly cautious. "I'd be crazy to tell you I'm going to beat Roland," he said. "My chances are one in 10."
What Naber didn't know was that his East German rival had been weakened by colds and recent root-canal work. Even more important was Matthes' admission that swimming was becoming "more work and less fun." Matthes won both backstroke events at each of the last two Olympics but has been predicting for some time that he would retire before the 1976 Games.
The race against Naber in the 200 began inauspiciously. Matthes had grown accustomed to winning with such ease that he could afford the luxury of looking over his shoulder when approaching the wall instead of using overhead flags to gauge his turns the way other backstrokers do. Nearing the first turn, kicking deep and riding high in his familiar style, he looked around as usual. He and Naber were dead even at this point, but soon the American began pulling ahead. Matthes is usually casual, all but smiling in the water, but now his features were grim and taut. Naber's lead at 100 meters was half a body length and Matthes began straining. He had to sacrifice caution for speed; he relied on the flags to make his turns.
Then came the last turn. "I got him good coming off the wall," the Snake said later. "He has great power, but I could see it just wasn't there."
Nor was the familiar zip there in the final crusher, the opening backstroke leg of the 400-meter medley relay. For the third time in their confrontation Naber burst ahead of Matthes to lead the U.S. men to their 15th and concluding win.
This defeat may have marked the saddest part of the champion's appearance in Concord. A fervent, wild-eyed team man, Matthes has always saved his best for the medley relay—in fact, all his backstroke records have been clocked in that event. And that, of course, was exactly the problem. For the first time in seven years, Roland Matthes' best was not good enough.