Don't let that laid-back air of Shirley Babashoff's fool you: she bears on her tanned shoulders the full burden of the U.S.'s proud tradition in women's swimming. Indeed, as the apple-cheeked Californian busily splashed her way to a pair of victories, a second and a third last weekend, one shuddered to imagine where this country's women's swim fortunes would be without her.
The occasion was the national AAU championships in Long Beach's Belmont Plaza pool, where the U.S. Olympic Trials will be held in mid-June. As the best American swimmers—and a generous sampling of top foreigners—went at one another for four days, it became increasingly hard to believe that just four years ago at Munich U.S. women had won eight of a possible 14 Olympic gold medals. That, of course, was shortly before the East German women slipped into their then daring skin suits and sent the Americans into a swoon from which they have yet to recover. The only women's world record currently in U.S. hands is Babashoff's in the 400-meter freestyle.
This circumstance gives her a de facto leadership she seems happy to assume. "I think the American girls are going to surprise people at Montreal," she enthused, trying to bolster morale before the AAU meet. "We're going to do better than anybody thinks."
The roiling waters at Long Beach produced little to justify such optimism. When California teen-ager Linda Jezek won the 100-meter backstroke and lowered her American record to 1:04.45, 2,300 fans found themselves cheering a time almost two seconds slower than the world record established last month by the GDR's Ulrike Richter. At that, Jezek was in a stronger position than 14-year-old Nicole Kramer, whose 2:19.01 in the 200 butterfly was five seconds above East German Rosemarie Kother's pending world record.
April 12, 1976
In fact, Babashoff alone among the American women emerged from the meet looking anything like a serious contender for Olympic gold, particularly in her middle distance specialties. Wearing the black goggles and yellow bathing cap that have become her trademarks, she slashed through the water to win the 400 freestyle, then took the 200 free, but on Sunday night, going from one distance extreme to another with only 15 minutes' rest, she finished a narrow second in the 100 free and third in the 800. In the 400, Babashoff hit the wall in 4:15.82, barely a second shy of her world record. In the 200 she finished less than three-tenths of a second off the 2:02.27 world record held by Kornelia Ender, the queen of GDR swimming. When the meet was over, not even Babashoff at her think-positive best was ready to make claim that there had been much competition.
"I think I could have broken the world record if I'd been pushed," she said after the 400, "but there was nobody out there with me."
Still, there remained the feeling that at least a few American women could yet help Babashoff against the East Germans at Montreal. Behind such optimism was the fact that Long Beach hardly provided a true Olympic reading. Customarily, the AAU's spring meet is held in a 25-yard pool, but this year, with an eye on Montreal, the decision was made to stage it in the oceanfront 50-meter Olympic Trials pool. The trouble was that the 1,028 entrants—a swarm that made morning warmups resemble Coney Island on a simmering summer Sunday—were operating on 1,028 different training schedules.
It was especially hard to gauge the performance of the college men, who had swum the NCAA meet in a 25-yard pool the week before. Southern Cal's John Naber adjusted nicely, winning both backstroke events and lowering his American record in the 100 to 56.99. But hometown hero Tim Shaw, the Long Beach State freshman who had defeated Naber in a dramatic 500 and set two American records a week earlier, fared far less well. Three days before the AAUs, Long Beach Coach Dick Jochums, looking ahead to the Olympic Trials, had shifted Shaw from a restful 4,000-meters-a-day regimen to an all-out 14,000-meter training grind.
Swimming heavy-armed and rubber-legged, Shaw failed to make the eight-man finals in the 200 freestyle, settling for 12th place. In the 1,500, an event in which he held the world record (15:20.91) until Australian Steve Holland broke it in February, Shaw swam a dismal 16:18.69 to finish 22nd. Shaw still holds the world record of 3:53.31 in the 400, but in that event, too, he failed to make the finals, struggling to a 4:01.77 in the consolation heat for 11th overall. The winner, in 3:56.48, was Doug North-way, who was ineligible for the NCAAs, having transferred from Washington to Arizona. A bronze medalist in the 1,500 at Munich, Northway used to be so scrawny that once he was blown off a starting block by a gust of wind. He carries no more than 150 pounds on his 6'2" frame, but in winning the AAU 400 he gained some psychological heft that Tim Shaw and his coach could scarcely be happy about.
"I blew it, that's all," grieved Jochums, willingly accepting a blame that Shaw as willingly shared. "I just didn't give a good effort," Shaw said. "I think it's going to make me hungry. I know it's made me mad."
If the week was one of woe for Shaw, it produced a world record—the only one of the meet—for visiting Hungarian Zoltan Verraszto. A tiny figure with street-urchin features, the 20-year-old Verraszto arrived in the U.S. with a delegation that also included Andras Hargitay, the record holder in the 400 individual medley. Known primarily as a backstroker, Verraszto snatched the record away from his countryman, leading Hargitay and Csaba Sos to a one-two-three Hungarian sweep. The winning time of 4:26 bettered Hargitay's mark by nearly three seconds.
"I'm shocked," confessed Hargitay, who like Verraszto hopes to enroll at Indiana University next fall and swim for Doc Counsilman. "I never dreamed Zoltan would go that fast."
If the 400 IM final made it seem more like the Hungarian than American championships, it was no more disorienting than the record-smashing swims turned in by England's Christine Jarvis and America's Wendy Boglioli. Jarvis, who as a teen-ager played cornet in a Salvation Army band, is 26, an age at which swimmers are supposed to be content with their memories. Perhaps because she has few memories to sustain her—she failed to reach the finals in Munich in the 100-meter breaststroke, her specialty—Jarvis quit her job as a music teacher, sold her Austin 1300 and came to the U.S. to swim on the women's team at Alabama. In Long Beach she churned to a British record of 1:14.7 in the 100 breaststroke, lending credence to her claim that age is more help than hindrance. "I find I'm more relaxed than when I was 17," she said.
Being all of 21, Wendy Lansback Boglioli is not quite as ancient as Jarvis, but she is married—which many swim coaches consider an even greater drawback. Yet it was only after Wendy, a so-so swimmer in her single days, joined the team at New Jersey's Monmouth College, pared her 5'11" self from 180 pounds to 140 and married Bernie Boglioli that she blossomed as a swimmer. Her husband, a former distance swimmer, helps coach her. "We eat, drink and sleep swimming," says Wendy, and when she won the 100 butterfly at Long Beach in a U.S.-record 1:02.14, Bernie knocked over three folding chairs on his dash to congratulate her.
Jarvis and Boglioli have benefited from an upsurge in women's collegiate swimming that bodes well over the long haul, if not necessarily for Montreal. Another collegian conspicuous at Long Beach was Leese Sward, a willowy University of Miami sophomore who used to have flowing blonde hair. Now she is bald. Borrowing a practice hitherto confined to men swimmers, she shaved her head to make herself sleeker in the water before last month's AIAW meet and did it again last week, which may or may not have contributed to her fourth-place finish in the 100 fly won by Boglioli. Spectators gasped when they saw her, but Sward said with a shrug, "It doesn't bother me. I guess I'm pretty easygoing."
Also destined to join the ranks of women collegians—although with no intention of shedding her lank blonde hair—is Babashoff, who plans to be swimming for the UCLA women's team next year. She is now finishing up at Golden West College, a two-year school where she competes on the men's team and last fall was elected campus homecoming queen. As a skinny 15-year-old at Munich, Babashoff won a gold medal on the U.S. 400-meter-freestyle relay team and added two silvers in individual events. She emerged as the dominant U.S. woman scarcely a year later and has been on top ever since, practically an eternity for a woman swimmer.
Until recently Babashoff was known as a come-from-behinder who preferred to nip rivals in the last few meters rather than risk taking command of a race earlier. But in the 400 free at Long Beach she burst into the lead before the 150-meter mark and pulled steadily away from Pan-American Games star Kathy Heddy and Canadian Shannon Smith. "I realized they were going so slow," she said later. In the wait-till-June atmosphere that otherwise prevailed around the Belmont pool, Shirley Babashoff's impatience seemed, in an Olympic year, auspicious.