The long race was nearly over when the 2,000 fans packed into Brown University's Smith Swimming Center last Saturday night suddenly stood up shouting and thunderously stamped their feet. In the pool below them Tim Shaw was slipping smoothly through the water, inexorably edging farther and farther ahead of his nearest rival, obviously bound for an American record in the 1,650-yard freestyle. For Shaw, a freshman at Long Beach State, it would be his second such record in the NCAA swimming and diving championships, but the crowd's ear-splitting reaction that affirmed his emergence as the new king of college swimming seemed oddly out of place on a supposedly blasé Ivy League campus.
What seemed odder still was that Shaw's crowd-pleasing deeds, coming less than four months before the Summer Olympics, may be as significant as any the 18-year-old Californian had achieved in the past. Just two months ago he received the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete of 1975, a year in which he held records in every freestyle event from 200 to 1,500 meters. Yet as the Olympics neared, most of Shaw's records had been broken, leaving him with only the 400.
The big shocker had come five weeks ago when Australia's Steve Holland reeled off a 15:10.89 in the 1,500, fully 10 seconds better than Shaw's mark. Meanwhile, Shaw had not been swimming well over the winter, raising fears that he might have had the ill luck to peak a year before the Olympics.
"I've been kind of plowing through the water this season," Shaw fretted while relaxing in a Providence motel room on the eve of the NCAA meet. "It's been only the last couple of weeks that I've started going better in workouts. I could use a couple of good swims here to prove I'm not slipping."
April 5, 1976
Shaw proceeded to prove it well enough to utterly overshadow a contest for the team championship that was, in fact, no contest at all. Southern Cal rolled up a near-record 398 points to take its third straight title in a rout, leaving Tennessee (237), UCLA (213) and fading superpower Indiana (199) to battle among themselves for the next three places. Coming armed both with depth and stars, Coach Peter Daland's Trojans had as many as four out of a possible six finalists in some races and missed making the finals in only three of the 16 swimming events. All told, USC took home seven firsts, a haul marred only by the fact that it was USC's star, freestyler-backstroker John Naber, who was deposed by Shaw as the dominant figure in collegiate ranks. Now a junior, Naber had won three events as a freshman, repeated as a sophomore and was seeking his seventh straight NCAA individual championship when he came up against Shaw in the opening swimming event of the four-day meet.
It was a classic matchup, pitting Naber, the American record holder in the 500 freestyle, against Shaw, whose 400-meter world record is the event's metric equivalent. While Shaw excels in 50-meter world-class pools, Naber has fared better in 25-yard pools like those in which the NCAAs are held, because of the more frequent turns. Naber is especially skilled at catapulting his 6'6" body off the walls. "Tim will win the straightaways and I'll win the turns," he predicted before the 500. "It should be quite a race."
Unhappily for Naber, Shaw managed to hit the wall with some authority of his own, all but nullifying Naber's advantage. "I knew I couldn't let him beat me off the walls too much, so I really concentrated on my turns," Shaw said. He stayed pretty much at Naber's shoulder for the first 275 yards, surging into the lead just before the 300 mark, and then withstood several late charges. Naber's old record was 4:20.45, and both swimmers went under it, Shaw touching in 4:19.05, Naber in 4:19.71. Swallowing his disappointment, the ever-effusive Naber reached across the lane marker and held Shaw's hand aloft in triumph.
Although Naber was not entered in the 1,650, it was his record—15:09.51—that fell there, too. Shaw's time was 15:06.76, all the more impressive in that his closest rival, Southern Cal's Ron Orr, finished more than a pool length behind. For most of the way Shaw had not been pressed.
After the opening-night defeat, Naber recovered to take both the 100-and 200-yard backstrokes as well as swimming on USC teams that swept all three relay events, setting American records in two, the 400 free (2:57.54) and 800 free (6:33.13). Though the loss in the 500 stopped his streak, Naber's backstroke wins gave him an imposing eight NCAA individual titles. With his senior year yet to come—and with swimmers allowed to enter three individual events—he still remains a threat to break the NCAA career record of nine championships set by Washington's Jack Medica in the '30s and equaled by USC's Roy Saari in the '60s. He also remains the leading U.S. Olympic hope in the backstroke, although the loss to Shaw momentarily tempered some big ideas he was nurturing regarding the 400 free.
"I think I still might have a chance to make the U.S. team in the 400 and maybe win a medal," he said, "but I've got to be realistic about the gold. Tim will be very hard for anybody to beat."
With such Olympic speculation rampant around the Brown pool, the only certain conclusion is that the battle for the men's team in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June is going to be furious. A foretaste of what can be expected came in the 200-yard freestyle, an event in which Indiana's Jim Montgomery had set a U.S. record of 1:37.65 four weeks ago in the Big Ten meet. Arriving in Providence, Southern Cal freshman Bruce Furniss came off a recent siege with the flu to lower the record in a morning preliminary heat to 1:36.91, whereupon Montgomery outswam Furniss in the evening finals to grab it back with a 1:36.53. As everybody played keepaway with the records, it was forgivable that the dazzled public-address announcer mistakenly credited Furniss' short-lived record to Tim Shaw while the Providence Journal-Bulletin gave it to USC's Steve Furniss, Bruce's older brother who had finished second to yet another of the omnipresent Southern Californians, Rod Strachan, in the 400-yard individual medley held earlier the same evening.
Another torrid rivalry at Brown involved Stanford senior John Hencken, who outdid Miami's David Wilkie in the 100 breaststroke only to get whipped by Wilkie in the 200. Thus ended a four-year battle during which the two rivals monopolized their shared specialty, Hencken taking five of the eight breaststroke events staged during that period and Wilkie three. Wilkie is a British subject and he and Hencken seem destined to settle matters once and for all in Montreal, a confrontation intensified by the fact that they are barely on speaking terms.
"I don't know exactly why, but we've always avoided each other," said Hencken, groping to explain the coolness. "I guess we're trying to psych each other out or something."
"It's not exactly a clash of personalities," offered Wilkie, who had finished second to Hencken in Munich at the last Summer Games. "In fact, maybe it's because our personalities are too much alike. He's quiet and so am I."
In contrast, Tim Shaw's recent problems had to do strictly with swimming, not personalities. He swam sluggishly during much of Long Beach State's dual-meet season, and at one point was even beaten in the 200-yard freestyle by Brigham Young's Mark McGregor, a swimmer so unheralded that, recounting the setback recently, Shaw had to ask his coach, Dick Jochums, for McGregor's name. After that loss, Shaw went around his family home, which is less than a mile from the Long Beach campus, systematically putting out of sight all his swimming plaques that had been on display. The Sullivan trophy, which had occupied a place of honor in the living room, was banished to his parents' bedroom.
"I just realized that it's hard to have incentives with all those awards around," Shaw explained. "It's like saying that's where my career ends, and I don't want to feel that way at all, especially right now. That stuff represents the past and I've got to concentrate on the future."
What the future holds for Shaw, among other things, is a likely showdown in the 1,500 with Australia's Holland, which he must somehow train for while simultaneously getting ready for the 400 and 200. The nature of that challenge was dramatized at the NCAAs, where Shaw collected his two American records in the 1,650 and the 500, yet ended up third behind Montgomery and Bruce Furniss in the 200. "I haven't done much speed work yet," he said after his loss. "That will have to come later."
As if Shaw's freestyle program will not keep him occupied, it also happens that he swims a pretty fair backstroke. This was very much on the mind of Naber, who scarcely relishes the idea of having to contend with Shaw in backstroke as well as freestyle. When both swimmers were hauled out for a press conference following the 500, Naber listened to reporters firing questions at the triumphant Shaw for a while, then interjected one of his own. "Are you going to try out for the Olympic team in the 200 back, Tim?"
What with head-to-head battles being all the rage in swimming, Shaw's reply was hardly surprising. "I might," he said. "I'm thinking about it." When John Naber winced, that was hardly surprising, either.