IN THE BACK HE'S WAY OUT FRONT

A self-described 'semiamphibian water mammal,' 6'6" John Naber spends enough of his frenetic life immersed to be a good bet to win three gold medals at the Olympics
May 09, 1976

A hush fell over the crowd packed into Brown University's Smith Swimming Center for the 1976 NCAA championships. In the water, Southern Cal's John Naber maneuvered his long, bony body to the wall, concentrating on the race he was about to swim, the 100-yard backstroke. Suddenly Naber noticed an ABC-TV camera trained on him. He flashed a here-I-am-world grin, then issued a joyful "Hi, Mom!" for the folks at home in Menlo Park, Calif. That done, he went ahead and won the race.

If John Naber can shamelessly ham it up before a big race, it is only natural that he carries on a bit afterward, too. Accordingly, it is well documented that Naber has celebrated swimming triumphs by enveloping astonished rivals with bear hugs, flinging roses into the crowd and randomly kissing any coed who happens to cross his path on a pool deck. A storklike figure at 6'6" and 195 pounds, he flaps around at other times adding new names to the list of 30-odd pen pals with whom he regularly corresponds or merrily tackling any and all subjects with reporters, from his fondness for trivia questions ("loads of fun") to his profoundest philosophical underpinnings ("The quality I treasure most is honesty...").

As for what makes him prance and pontificate, Naber is characteristically forthcoming. "I'm having a great time," he enthuses, an explanation that surely applied to the moment, also at Brown, when he mounted the victory stand, produced an Instamatic and startled the assembled photographers by snapping away at them. "I wanted to turn the tables on those guys," he said.

However he explains his antics, John Naber towers over swimming today by reason of his gangly height, the 14 American records he has set and, as much as anything, his exuberance. A 20-year-old junior, he has led Southern Cal to three straight NCAA championships and is well on the way to establishing himself as the most accomplished swimmer in collegiate history. Meanwhile, he looms as a good bet to win three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics.

Any such performance by Naber at Montreal would give the world an Olympic hero longer on personality than physical grace, the reverse of the image that Mark Spitz projected in 1972. Inspired by his physique, so free of definition that a fireman would feel comfortable sliding down it, Naber's USC teammates call him "Snake," which also covers the low, flat and sinuous way he slips through the water. Naber has picked up a couple of other nicknames that acknowledge his freewheeling nature. One is The Politician. Another is The Roman Candle.

He admirably lives up to these handles, too. As a teen-ager in Menlo Park, a shady suburb of San Francisco, he glad-handed his way to the presidency of the 2,000-member student body at Woodside High School, a success he credits to his popularity with "the straight-arrow crowd." Now a prominent member of USC's thriving Christian movement, he speaks with palpable sincerity about the joys of nature, the evils of narcotics and the importance of helping life's unfortunates. The Politician? Unleashed against any of this year's presidential hopefuls, it is hard to imagine John Naber carrying fewer than 40 states.

Less susceptible to prognosis is how he might celebrate such a triumph—which is where the Roman Candle business enters in. In a sport in which many athletes would never so much as smile without the coach's consent, Naber's impetuousness inevitably strikes some as excessive. Indiana sprint star Jim Montgomery shakes his head and concludes sadly, "Naber's a fruitcake." Perhaps worse, UCLA's Bruce Hardcastle, a perennial runner-up to Naber in the backstroke, sees in his rival's hail-fellow manner a touch of the Machiavellian.

"John is always so friendly, and that makes it hard to swim against him," Hardcastle complains. "I sometimes think he does it for a purpose. Like before a race he'll say, 'Let's you and I go one-two.' I know he means I'm the one finishing second. That's when I tell myself, 'Hey, maybe this guy's not that nice.' "

But Olympic hero Charlie Hickcox, now an AAU coach in Cincinnati, takes a different view. "Most great athletes are emotional," he says. "Naber just shows it more. There's nothing wrong with that." Naber also wins favor from a number of teen-age fans who, pleased to find a swimmer who will actually smile and wave at the crowd, have formed John Naber card sections at meets. Naber's showmanship impresses USC-bound Canadian backstroker Steve Pickell, who says, "John is outgoing and that's good for swimming because people notice him."

It is yet another sign of his fundamental enthusiasm that Naber himself appears to embrace all these viewpoints at once. "I do get carried away," he allows. "I guess I just enjoy being in the limelight." But there was also the revealing moment after Naber won high-point honors at last month's AAU championships in Long Beach's Belmont Plaza pool, a meet that many collegians, having swum in the NCAAs the week before, shrugged off as unimportant. Accepting congratulations on the pool deck, Naber declared with sudden gravity, "Any swimmer who took this meet lightly did a disservice to the fans, the press and, thereby, themselves." End of lecture.

Naber's most memorable moments in the limelight include his early portrayals of Jack the Giant Killer, never mind that he happens to be shaped more like the beanstalk. Swimmers are allowed to enter three individual events at NCAA meets, and as a freshman in 1974 Naber won the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes and the 500-yard freestyle to lead USC to a stunning one-point upset that snapped the six-year reign of supposedly invincible Indiana. Later that same year he broke the even longer unbeaten streak—a seven-year stretch—of backstroker Roland Matthes, whipping the East German star in the 100- and 200-meter at the historic U.S.-GDR dual meet at Concord, Calif.

Having exhausted the possibilities of Jack, Naber now plays the giant just as convincingly. As a sophomore in the NCAAs he again won both backstrokes and the 500 as USC beat the Hoosiers far more handily. Though he saw his streak snapped at Brown this spring when Long Beach State freshman Tim Shaw out-dueled him in the 500, Naber nevertheless helped USC breeze to another team title by once more winning both backstrokes, raising his total of NCAA wins to eight. As a senior Naber should tie or break the record of nine titles held by Washington's Jack Medica in the 1930s and duplicated by USC's Roy Saari in the '60s.

One effect of the loss to Shaw, however, was to tone down Naber's Olympic ambitions. A backstroker blessed with endurance, Naber wistfully notes, "My strongest event would be the 800 backstroke." Unfortunately, the backstroke is staged at distances no greater than 200 meters. Specializing in backstroke while also swimming freestyle clear up to 1,650 yards, the sport's longest event, Naber has been able to mix short and long with almost unbelievable results: going into the Brown meet, he held six American records—four of them in backstroke (100 and 200 yards and 100 and 200 meters), the others in the 500 and 1,650. And there was some heady thinking on Naber's part that he might be in line for six or more Olympic gold medals.

When Tim Shaw was done with him at Brown, both of Naber's freestyle records were gone and his gold-medal prospects were reduced, realistically, to the two backstroke events. Having ruled that stroke for two years (though he has not yet broken Matthes' world records), Naber figures to win both events at Montreal and swim the backstroke leg on a victorious U.S. 400-meter medley relay. As for freestyle, Naber admitted after the NCAAs, "It's hard to imagine winning golds now." But at next month's U.S. Trials in Long Beach, he still intends to seek berths on the team in the 400- and 1,500-meter and the 800 free relay. "If I could win a silver or bronze in freestyle, that would be O.K., too," he reasons.

If Naber has a long reach in swimming, it is consistent with the frenetic pace of his daily life at USC. While spending four hours a day at swim workouts and maintaining a solid B average, he also participates in four Bible-study groups a week and works as resident adviser in his predominantly freshman dormitory, serving as mother hen to 25 students. The job pays room and board, both of which he was already receiving on athletic scholarship, which means he took it, in effect, without compensation. Kent Walton, the dorm's head resident adviser, marvels, "It's an almost unbelievable thing for a varsity athlete to do."

But Naber laughs and says, somewhat cryptically, "I love responsibility—as long as it's responsibility I choose. It's the same with opening a door for a girl. I'll do it, but only if I want to, not because society says I have to."

Independence, in fact, is something of a Naber obsession. Asked why he never pledged a fraternity, he replies melodramatically, "The Trojan swim team is my fraternity." Yet Naber refuses to wear his USC letterman's jacket ("my chlorine-bleached hair is uniform enough") and he cultivates non-jock friends during ritual two-hour lunches at a campus cafeteria, elaborate exercises in table-hopping during which he takes his appetizer with one group, his main course with another, his dessert with yet another. "I knew John for two months before I learned he was a swimmer," says Jane Paul, a sometime date who met Naber in the cafeteria. "He was just Big Friendly John."

Big Friendly John also has a quieter side to him, something he spoke of one day after lunch while sitting in his dormitory room, a tidy cubicle dominated by a poster picturing a mist-shrouded Norwegian fjord. Dangling his long legs over a chair, he said, "People think John Naber is outgoing, confident and brash—period. But I also enjoy looking inward. It brings me down to earth." Then he rattled off an exhausting list of his quieter pleasures, which include Sunday afternoon walks, half-hour showers, strumming a guitar, bicycle rides and driving "nowhere" in his 1970 Duster.

As such things are measured in the sport, swimming found a place in Naber's obviously crowded scheme of things somewhat belatedly. Kids in California take up competitive swimming as early as six or seven, but John and the other Naber children—Fred, now 22, Nancy, 18, and Rob, 15—stayed pretty much dry while spending a good chunk of their shared childhood in Italy and England, where their father, a management consultant, worked for seven years. Phil Naber is 6'6", his wife Joan 5'11", and young John sprouted so fast that his Italian teachers took to calling him il gigante.

But the boy was also ungainly, a family joke having it that he played soccer dozens of times in Europe without once actually kicking a ball. On their return to the U.S. the Nabers visited relatives in Illinois, and John became goggle-eyed over a cousin's modest collection of swimming ribbons. After the Nabers settled in northern California, John, at the relatively advanced age of 13, began thrashing through the water for Coach George French at the Ladera Oaks Aquatic Club.

"He was tremendously uncoordinated," affirms French, who has since moved to the Palo Alto Swim Club. "But he worked harder than anybody in the pool." Happily, Naber's loose-jointed physique actually helped him as a swimmer. Long-muscled and long-armed, he developed a deep kick, powered by wide feet—they are now 12 EEEE—that helped him, he says wryly, "no more than if I were wearing fins."

Another Naber drollery is to refer to himself as "a semiamphibian water mammal," which is his way of saying that he remained awkward and accident-prone on land even while he improved rapidly as a swimmer. In the 1972 Olympic Trials, 16-year-old John Naber placed fifth in the 200 backstroke—the top three finishers made the U.S. team-even though he was still recovering from a broken collarbone suffered four months earlier in poolside horseplay. In Cincinnati for the 1973 AAU indoor championships, Naber phoned his family's hillside home in Menlo Park and reported in a gloomy voice, "I've broken something today."

"Oh, John, what now?"

"The American record in the 200 back."

That record, Naber's first, came in a preliminary heat, and he celebrated with his now-familiar flair, turning one frenzied underwater somersault after another. When he won the finals the same evening, Naber rejoiced with a manic water-slapping victory lap that could have passed for a comedy routine left over from Billy Rose's Aquacade.

Naber's emergence as a standout swimmer coincided with his spiritual awakening. He was raised as a Presbyterian but attended church irregularly, and says now, "I was the big swimmer, the student body president and all, but something was missing." In his senior year Naber heard an evangelist speak at Woodside High, and dedicated his life to Christ, a decision he feels has influenced his swimming in every way. "Jesus helps get me through my losses," he says. "Having Him in my heart also gives me somebody to share my wins with."

Naber deems it his "Christian duty" to serve as a model for others. He does not smoke, eschews premarital sex and seldom uses language stronger than comic-book epithets like "dang," or "rats"; if truly angered, he paints the air not-quite-blue with "Oh, shine it!" When another American swimmer decided to become a Christian last year during a trip to Japan, Naber was delighted to baptize him—dunking the convert, who wore his racing suit, in the bathtub of a Tokyo hotel room.

At the same time Naber has become wary about appearing overzealous. At last year's NCAA meet in Cleveland he clasped his hands in prayer both before and after races and concluded a national TV interview with a ringing "Praise Jesus!" When mail arrived castigating him as a "Jesus freak," he complained, "Those people don't understand. I don't pray for help in winning but to make me humble and keep my head together after the race." At recent meets Naber has pretty much kept his prayers private. "I don't want anybody to think I'm trying to convert them," he says.

It is unlikely that Naber could ever let himself be completely curbed. On swim trips he is forever organizing watermelon seed-spitting or saltine cracker-eating contests. Mention one or another of his opponents, and he can be counted on to say, unblinkingly, "Oh, he's one of my best friends." Such Naberly words were translated into action during the NCAAs at Brown when Indiana's Mel Nash, swimming in a lane next to Naber in a heat of the 200 backstroke, failed to hear the gun signaling a false start and kept on going. Naber came to the rescue, flinging himself across the lane marker to stop him. Visibly moved, Nash reached out and tousled Naber's hair.

All this effusiveness can sometimes be cause for concern. Working himself into an emotional froth, the already lean Naber has lost as much as 13 pounds at big meets and has also hollered himself hoarse. On one occasion he got so worked up that his face broke out. After defeating Roland Matthes at Concord, Naber wept when the East German gave him a GDR sweat suit as a memento. Returning after the meet to his parents' house, he put on Matthes' deep blue sweats and retreated to the basement to shoot pool by himself. His mother remembers hearing the forlorn click-click of pool balls for hours.

"John is very sentimental," says Joan Naber. "Raise the flag, kick a dog or mention mother and he gets choked up."

The possibility that The Roman Candle might self-destruct especially worries USC Coach Peter Daland, whose Trojans have finished no worse than third in the NCAAs in the past 17 years. Daland is a cultured, formal man who expects his swimmers to call him "Mr. Daland," which did not prevent Naber from breezing up to him one day at the USC pool and chirping, "Hey, Peter—I mean Mr. Daland." Of that slip, Naber later said, "To me, first names mean love, and I love Coach Daland as a father." With a smile, he added, "A Victorian father." Daland says, "Many of my swimmers are technocrats interested only in computers and electrodes, but John is a humanist who cares about people. The trouble is, he spreads himself so thin physically and emotionally. This makes him a marvelous human being, but it may not always help him as a swimmer."

In the middle of this past college season, Naber came down with a fairly acute, if not unforeseeable, case of the blahs. Reeling under his packed schedule, he fell behind in his studies, and his swimming suffered, too. After performing poorly in one of Southern Cal's dual meets, he returned to his room, mournfully played the guitar and, as he later confessed, had "a real good cry." Sympathizing with Naber during this period, freestyler Joe Bottom, his closest friend on the USC team, said, "Being unbeaten in the NCAAs has put pressure on John. It might help him to lose a big one for a change."

When Naber was beaten by Shaw in the 500 at Brown, he proved as ebullient in defeat as in victory, holding aloft Shaw's hand and coaxing the shy Long Beach State swimmer to wave to the crowd. Naber later confided, "Maybe Joe was right. I sure didn't like losing to Tim, but I think it's going to take some pressure off."

Also looking ahead, Mike Hastings, the present coach at Ladera Oaks, where Naber still swims in the summer, believes that il gigante is only now reaching his athletic potential. "John was slow to mature physically," says Hastings. "But he's getting stronger and a little more graceful now, and it's going to make him that much tougher." As for the merry-go-round he is on, Naber believes that in the long run it will help him avoid the fate of a USC star who is said to have dropped everything a few years back—job, classes, social life—to train for the Olympics, only to fail to make the U.S. team.

"The story is, he let swimming become his whole life and burned himself out," Naber says. "I don't think that can happen to me."

Naber's confidence on that score is illustrated by the red-white-and-blue knitted cap he keeps hidden away, the purpose of which he reveals with a sly grin. "When they announce the U.S. team at the Olympic Trials, I'm going to wait for just the right moment," he says. "Then I'll dramatically put on the cap. People will probably think it's corny and cocky." On the contrary, by this time most Naber-watchers would be disappointed by anything less.

PHOTOJOHN G. ZIMMERMAN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)